By Darnell Moore
“Sakia Latona Gunn: We Will Remember Her Name” (2008). Charles B. Brack (Producer) and Co-Produced with Third World Newsreel. Color; 58 minutes; US; English.
Fifteen year-old Sakia Latona Gunn was stabbed to death by an adult male perpetrator on Newark’s busiest intersection. Since Sakia’s murder in 2003, activists within Newark—and beyond—have worked to ensure that her name and story be remembered despite mass media’s invariable disavowal of the narratives of black/brown, urban, and poor individuals and communities. And, Sakia’s story will persist and will continue to refuse forgetting. The name, the particular herstory of this daughter of Newark, and the legacy attached to the memory of the cherished young woman whose vibrant life was ended by way of murder, will be etched in America’s collective memory.
In the fall of 2012, a traditional public high school in Newark, NJ, will be named after Sakia Gunn. Yes(!), the name of a black, aggressive (“AG”), urban, working class, lesbian whose life was tragically cut short by a heterosexist perpetrator will be inscribed on an American institution of learning. It seems to me that Charles “Chas” Brack, the documentarian who captured Sakia Gunn’s story, was prescient in naming his project, Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project. The dream of a sustained and intentional commitment to remember and celebrate Sakia Gunn—within communities and among institutions—though slightly deferred, did not dry up, fester, run, rot, crust and sugar over, or sag as some presumed. Instead, this dream, as captured eloquently—if not prophetically—in filmmaker Chas Brack’s compelling documentary, lives.
Brack’s primary objective in Dreams Deferred was to create a visual production that sought to connect the disjointed narratives related to the Sakia Gunn murder case. He also sought to reveal the varied silences that existed among mass media, mainstream LGBTQ and human right organizations, and queer communities disconnected from (the lives, victories, and struggles of) poor queer of color youth and adults across the country during that historicized moment. Brack succeeds in offering a careful rearticulation of the storyline that framed Sakia’s brutal murder and takes great care in visually narrating the court trial of the killer, Richard McCullough, who on May 16, 2003 took a knife to Sakia’s fifteen year-old heart in a vicious response to her rejection of his advance. After turning himself in, McCullough was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in prison on charges of aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation.
In Dreams Deferred, a dejected McCullough is frequently depicted alongside an irate array of family members and friends including one of Sakia’s closest confidants, namely, her cousin Valenica Bailey. Valencia, another black “AG” teenage lesbian, figures prominently throughout the film. We are exposed to Brack’s recasting of the original, climatic, interposed courtroom scenes wherein viewers are left to sit uncomfortably through Valencia’s agonizing recall of the moment when her best friend was murdered in her presence eventually bleeding and dying in her arms. Brack captures expertly one courtroom scene in particular when young Valencia is filmed crying and grieving uncontrollably as she addresses the murderer. Her representation is one of woeful distress and disorientation and it is within this particular scenic-scape where viewers are transmuted from disconnected and dispassionate voyeurs to distressed and disoriented loved ones situated in the courtroom alongside Valencia. Brack achieves the task of capturing the non-staged realism of the murder case leaving nothing (pain, tears, or anger) to the imagination alone.
In addition to Brack’s attentiveness to the particularities of the murder case, the viewer is invited to interrogate the media silences and amnesiac responses to the death of Sakia Gunn. Brack transports the viewer from Christopher Street Piers in Manhattan, which is directly across the river from the setting of the tragic killing, and as far away as the Bay Area in California to track the sonic absence of Sakia’s name and the unfortunate tragedy that cut short her life. What Brack illumines through the score of testimonies offered by on-screen witnesses is the perception that the life and murder of a young, black, female, lesbian from working class Newark, New Jersey is not as valued (read, marketable and capitalizable) as that of victims of similar crimes like young, white, gay, male, Matthew Shepard, from Casper, Wyoming. Sakia’s story, though it occurred five years after Shepard’s, received considerably less attention within mainstream media, did not warrant comparable celebrity pomp, and was not fuel for the blaze that set afire certain segments of the American populace who, at the time, pressed government to pass tough hate crime laws. Indeed, what Brack effectively achieves is the contextualization of the murder of a youthful, black, working class, masculine performing, female-loving-female within the framework of a vexing master narrative that makes clear the ways in which certain bodies are commodified and extended value within the project of neoliberal capitalism in America.
Brack should be lauded for creating a film that is at once a story about Sakia’s murder, the subsequent trial and its placement, or lack thereof, within a trajectory of similar hate crimes; yet, he fails to present Sakia Latona Gunn as the primary subject of the heart-rending story that bears her name. Brack does not go as far as one would like in developing a narrative arc that might connect the broader social contextualities that he illuminates to the intricate details of Sakia’s death and life. One wonders, for example: Who was Sakia Gunn? How did she act? Where did she hang out? How did she love and despair? What did her bedroom look like? How did the life of this fifteen year-old differ from that of others her age? There is a sense of loss and dread in the film beyond that associated with Sakia’s murder because there is an absenting of Sakia the person, of her interiority, of the private life of the subject in Dreams Deferred. This daunting silence is different, but no less penetrating than the societal amnesia that Brack’s film rightly treats as a public phenomenon in need of further examination and critique.
Yet, it is Brack—amidst the sprinkling of artists creating media and other products bearing Sakia’s name (some without the permission of her family)—who has been steadfast in naming Sakia’s story and illuminating our silences throughout the US and beyond. It is Brack’s real-life, real-time commitment to Sakia, and Valencia, and Latona (Sakia’s mother) and other younger and older black/brown queer poor urban folk that adds authenticity to his project. As we near the ten-year mark post Sakia’s murder, and as we ready to celebrate the launch of the school that will bear her name, Dreams Deferred, is a resource that we can turn to as a means of remembrance and call to action.