2020 Milwaukee Film Festival: “ALICE STREET”
ALICE STREET is part of the Art & Artists program at the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival. Ostensibly it’s about community involvement to create and preserve a series of murals celebrating the history and inhabitants of an area of Oakland, California at the corner of Alice Street and 14th Street. But, that’s the inroad into a film that’s concerned about gentrification, displacement, and development without regards to the existing residents and history of a community.
It’s also a subject that’s I find especially relevant as I sit on a Plan Commission. The stakes are lower in my community, but the processes of trying to sort out the issues when there are opposing arguments and you have to balance benefits are similar. As are the local cranks.
ALICE STREET clearly is on the side of the artists and residents of the area and the lack of a strong counter argument is one of the things that the film is missing. However, it also doesn’t paint the developers are villains so much as just a bit inconsiderate of the local history and residents, so it plays like more of a philosophical argument than a good vs evil story.
One of the ways that ALICE STREET is eye opening is in not portraying all area residents as necessarily being a uniform conglomerate. The two main area residents are an African-American arts school / home to dance companies, and a Chinese-American center across the street. The local artists planning the gigantic murals are well in touch with the African-American history and desires, but find themselves having to cope with an entirely different set of expectations from the Chinese-Americans and have to adapt. And, of course, after all the hard work and consensus building of creating these giant murals looks temporary when the developers want to put up a large condominium complex blocking all views.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for the developers in this case. I’ve worked with some good ones that are willing to reach out and work with a community rather than just imposing their “vision”. There certainly are ways that the murals could be replaced, if the developer was interested in anything other than a fairly generic and bland building. And the top down approach of going to the halls of power first is off-putting. Even if you believe that a surface parking lot is one of the least valuable things a city can have, and the development is generally good, a sense of being a community partner instead of an interloper is important.
Especially, since the history and the murals are so vibrant. Even if we can’t see the film on a theater screen due to the pandemic, the scale and power of the existing murals are unmistakable. They’re a celebration of history and people and represent something to aspire to, not to cover up. Filming the creation of the murals in time lapse brings a real sense of investment and appreciation to the process, so when they’re threatened, the viewer feels a personal investment too. It’s smart direction by Spencer Wilkinson who brings a vibrancy and energy to the whole film.
The main criticism is that at 67 minutes, I feel there’s room for delving into the topics in more detail and nuance. There’s a tag of an ultimate accommodation, but the details are left murky. And there are certainly stakeholders that aren’t heard from. But, it’s still a well made, vibrant, and expressive tale of fighting to preserve and celebrate the history of an area with art serving as a rallying point. If nothing else, it leads to larger conversations in a way that’s not strident or a harangue. We need more documentaries like this.
ALICE STREET is streaming throughout the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival which runs from October 15 to 29, 2020. Tickets to individual films and passes can be purchased via Milwaukee Film.