Often overlooked in conversations about the District’s economic boom is the continuous erasure of an indigenous culture that manifested go-go music, slang and fashion unique to the former Chocolate City, and tight-knit communities that, despite the 1968 riots, the subsequent crack epidemic, and countless murders, buoyed a mostly Black local government.
“What Happened 2 Chocolate City,” a newly produced and locally acclaimed documentary, delves deeply into the personal aspect of gentrification, centering three generations of native Washingtonians who’ve seen and experienced D.C. during its ascent to the status of a prominent Chocolate City, its more-than-a-decade transformation, and all else in between.
“I realized that the break up of the Black family was critical, so I had to show the perspective of someone who was born in a segregated city and saw Black excellence,” Mignotae Kedebe, producer of “What Happened 2 Chocolate City,” told The Informer as she and her team of cinematographers and editors placed the finishing touches on the more than two-hour production.
Kedebe, a George Washington University alumna hailing from Los Angeles, said she produced “What Happened 2 Chocolate City” frustrated that she and her peers in the “bubble” of D.C.’s Foggy Bottom in couldn’t easily access authentic D.C. culture and history. She called it a symptom of greater forces that kept the real D.C. hidden from newcomers.
“To address civil rights, mass incarceration, and gentrification, I had to get these characters to show Black communities are only so strong because of the wealth of information in those families that were broken apart,” Kedebe said.
Hundreds of people packed the Lincoln Theatre in Northwest recently for a screening of “What Happened 2 Chocolate City,” which included cameos by returning citizens advocate Tony Lewis Jr., who provided remarks at the screening.
The documentary follows John Russell, 74 from Southeast, Mike “Peezy” Perry, 43, a fixture on Montana Avenue in Northeast throughout the 1990s, and Zarina, a preteen who moved from Kenilworth-Parkside in Northeast to Woodland Terrace in Southeast, each of whom speaks about their life growing up in the District.
Kedebe, a Northwest resident who started work on “What Happened 2 Chocolate City” in 2014, spent more than a year searching for the people she would feature in the film, connecting with native Washingtonians at local community centers.
Russell, a witness of the 1968 riots, spoke about the Black opulence he witnessed on U Street as a youth, while Perry reflected on his stints in prison throughout the late 1990s up until 2013.
Zarina, the youngest of the trio, provided a glimpse into how rising property values and displacement affected D.C.’s children.
“I wanted to stay true to an ethnographic story and find characters that would allow me to follow and interview them for a year,” said Kedebe, who has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. “It’s hard finding subjects. I would go to [Arthur] Cappers [Senior Public Housing] in Southeast every Wednesday, observe the classes and hang out a couple weeks at a time before I found someone. It took me a year to find someone to talk about incarceration and the crack epidemic. I went through a lot of people, going to meetings until I found someone. I found Zarina through a psychologist.”
Each interviewee told their story standing in the middle of some of the District’s most recognizable streets and landmarks.
Mansa Johnson, native Washingtonian and an editor on the “What Happened 2 Chocolate City” film, said he found satisfaction not only speaking to the film’s subjects, but passersby who would regale him and the film team with stories about a D.C. wiped out by stadiums, ubiquitous condos, Irish pubs, and other signs of gentrification.
“Anytime we’d be shooting in places considered ‘bad,’ people would talk to us, after the cameras went off, for hours and tell us their stories,” said Johnson, 27.
Kedebe and Johnson, an alumnus of Morgan State University in Baltimore who lived in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood of Northeast in the late 1990s, connected through a mutual friend in April 2017, nearly three years into the film’s production.
Johnson said he formed a kinship with some of his new acquaintances after hearing their stories, some of which bore a resemblance to his own.
“This was something that a lot of people see and know is going on, but we didn’t know how we could help. Right when the screening ended, I told the audience I hoped they received something that made them angry,” said Johnson, who now lives in Capitol Heights, Maryland.
The documentary comes amid a $1 billion lawsuit that alleges D.C. government agencies and mayoral administrations purposefully implemented policy that destroyed low-income Black communities in D.C. and paved the way for a “creative” class, comprised of single, multi-ethnic transients with taxable income.
As of 2015, Black people in D.C. gained minority status, accounting for less than half of the population, according to census figures. As of press time, neither D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office nor any other party named in the suit filed by Southeast attorney Aristotle Theresa of Stoop Law has publicly commented.
Kedebe said she hopes the documentary, pending future edits and pitches to producers on the West Coast, will have a similar impact, as it relates to policy.
“We have to challenge the policies in place around affordable housing and development,” Kedebe said. “The city has money but how is it being spent and who are they giving it to? This film highlighted the resilience of the community; they’ve put up a fight, but we need to mend our wounds. I’ve highlighted the homicides but showed how the community can be involved. It’s important to strike that balance.”