A lot of documentaries can survive on the inherent cool of an interesting subject, but Check It pushes the boundaries of just how much that dynamic can allow. In Check It’s better moments it functions as an oral history of the self-proclaimed Check It crew, reported in the film to be “the first gay gang documented in America.” Formed in the rougher areas of Washington DC, where there’s an absurdly high rate of reported hate crimes against LGBTQ youth, Check It exists as an aggressive resistance in which queer & trans kids stand up for themselves and participate in vicious acts of violence in order to survive daily life. In the documentary’s less interesting impulses it glorifies the gang counselors who intend to “reform” members of Check It and turn them into normalized, “productive” members of society. The counselors & the documentary have their heart in the right place, but often push to strip the kids of the identity & vibrancy that made them so strong & so fascinating the first place. The result is a really interesting story told from self-conflicting perspectives: the kids who live it & the outsider adults who want to change it for the greater good.
I don’t mean to make Check It gang members’ lifestyles sound at all glamorous. Their ranks are populated with underage trans sex workers, the abandoned children of the survivors of the 80s crack epidemic that destroyed DC, the frequent targets of sudden & deadly violence. Kicked out of school, left homeless, and barely surviving, it’s incredible the way these kids found immense strength in solidarity. Their confidence is infectious. That solidarity sometimes becomes too powerful & their violence extends into abuse instead of survival in its ugliest moments, but that’s the improbable way they found respect in a world that obviously wants them dead. Outsider gang counselors attempt to inspire change in Check It’s key members, nobly & nakedly trying to save their lives. Sometimes this reform takes a natural approach, hoping to inspire them to find professional careers in the fashion industry, given their creativity in personal style. Other times it robs them of their identity, like when influencing them to take more traditionally masculine interests in activities like boxing. Either alternative might be a better option than their usual hobies of “fighting, snatching purses, getting locked up,” but it often feels disingenuous & short term in a way that wouldn’t be true if the change were coming from within.
If I were rating this film solely on the young, exciting personalities it manages to document this would be a five star review. The way these kids managed to turn a Paris is Burning lifestyle into a militarized force of resistance is an undeniably incredible feat. There’s a real power in statements like “when we go out places we go out as one,” even if “going out” is detailed here in difficult-to-watch smartphone footage of vicious knife fights & wig-snatching. When outside forces try to influence the kids to move in a safer, more socially acceptable direction, the documentary loses some of that genuine impact. The intent may be to save lives & I hope that’s an approach that works, but the film’s much more interesting angle is in how Check It members were saving their own lives long before the counselors & the cameras arrived. Check It works best when it shows the kids chowing on fast food, discussing their Instagram aesthetics, and listening to artists like Cakes da Killa or Dominique Young Unique. It loses a little credibility in its celebratory air when it asks those kids to change themselves to survive, especially since they had managed to survive on their own despite the overwhelming odds for long enough to make a name for themselves and attract this attention in the first place. If they ever find a way to inspire internal inspiration for change & progress within their own ranks they’ll be unstoppable. It’ll also make for a much less compromised documentary.