“I love a red carpet,” 26-year-old Star giggled excitedly in Chelsea’s Bowtie Cinema last Saturday night. She was wearing a shiny, yellow A-line dress with flowers printed on it, and high-heeled gladiator sandals. In her D.C. accent, she drew out the next sentence so as to luxuriate in it. “I love to be seeeeeeeeeeen.”
And so she was, big time. A few minutes later, Star’s image would be projected onto a screen during the world premiere of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Check It, an eponymously named documentary that follows principal members of Check It (also known as The Check It), a crew of young LGBT black men and women who live in Washington D.C. What Check It is, exactly, depends on who’s describing it. Its members, six of whom were on display that night, call it a family.
“It’s support,” Check It member Dae Dae, 23, told me before the premiere. Looking G.Q.-chic in a blue suit, his braids elaborately arranged into a halo, he politely removed the sunglasses he’d been rocking that night a few sentences into our discussion. “When you feel as though you have nobody to turn to, you can turn to your friends and they will be there for you. They helped me out in a lot of ways: food, to be brave and stand up for myself, family loyalty.”
Outsiders, including reporters and the crew’s mentor, activist Ron “Mo” Moten, call it a “gang.” Check It, which was co-founded by Star, who is trans, in 2009 as a partial result of gay-bashings she experienced before she transitioned, evolved as an off-shoot of the mostly female “gang” Unexpected. Within a few years, membership ballooned to over 200 members and Check It gained a reputation for, to put it in the words of one local news anchor in 2012 “terrorizing” downtown D.C., by brawling, stealing, and snatching purses.
Check It’s scandalizing criminal activity may have extended beyond its initial goals, but it’s important to view the crew within gay historical context—especially because, as Moten would go on to explain repeatedly to various crowds over the course of last weekend, the larger D.C. gay community has ignored the group (Moten says a Check It-organized fashion show that was held in D.C. earlier this month attracted more straight spectators than gay ones). The larger gay community’s apathy is ironic, if not downright shameful, given that the organizing of Check It, like many gay uprisings, was an organic resistance to bigotry.
“You gotta take the initiative to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” said Dae Dae. “If you can’t, they’re gonna run over you. I hope I can touch a lot of youth to see that you don’t have to be afraid to be yourself. Being yourself can take you further in life.”
The essence of gay liberation derived from a bunch of oppressed people boldly embracing their identities, and standing up to those who thwart, condemn, and oppose. This drove the Mattachine Society, it fueled the fire at Stonewall, it motivated Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT Up, and it’s responsible, at least in part, for Check It.
Directors Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer shot their film in D.C. mostly between 2012 and 2014. The documentary contains some chaotic footage of the havoc Check It have been known to wreak, as well as several scenes depicting the hair-trigger tempers of its members. Check It nonetheless has an uplifting bent, as it focuses on activist Moten’s attempt to inspire the Check It to seek prosocial outlets for its members’ energy. We see them at a fashion camp, and one member, Skittles, flirts with the idea of taking up boxing. Skittles, Moten reasons in the documentary, should be using his pugilistic acumen to improve his situation, not worsen it.
“We have too many people who are traumatized walking around urban America and we just expect them to be normal,” Moten told the sold-out crowd after Saturday’s screening. The documentary, Flor explained, came about at Moten’s suggestion when she initially approached him with the idea to document D.C.’s go-go music scene.
“It’s not normal to have five of your friends killed in one month and not get any services,” Moten continued. “Eventually it’s going to come out. A lot of times it comes out in a negative way.”
The night was awash in positivity, though. After the film ended, the cheering audience stood up and turned to the back row of the theater, where the Check It members had sat and vocally enjoyed the movie. They laughed at parts that the mostly white audience didn’t—like scenes of Check It members clowning between tricks on K Street, a stretch in D.C. known for prostitution that is, at some points, only blocks away from the White House.
In that Chelsea venue, the Check It members were wrapped in several layers of white gaze—from Flor and Oppenheimer’s camera lens to the white people who handled and greeted the cast on the red carpet (including Check It executive producer Steve Buscemi, who went down the line on the carpet and shook each member’s hand) to the crowd in the theater which contained the likes of Louis C.K., and Debbie Harry, right down to me. But what that meant, frankly, is that for 90 minutes, a few hundred white people shut the fuck up and listened while a marginalized group that goes almost entirely without representation in filmmaking—let alone in the broader scheme of pop culture—was given the space to explain their lives. “I want people to know where my anger and pain come from,” Dae Dae told me against a backdrop of exposed brick later during the premiere’s after party at Chelsea’s One Star Bar. “A lot of people just see me as this loud, obnoxious-attitude person. There are a lot of things people didn’t know about until I started telling them.”
By all accounts, coaxing out this telling took patience. Flor said she and Oppenheimer, with whom she’d previously collaborated on the HBO doc The Nine Lives of Marion Berry, spent “months and months” with the Check It so as to gain their trust. “I’m surprised they kept up with us, we were so ghetto, fighting all the time. It was a lot,” said Star. “We’d curse them out and they were still behind us. They didn’t care.”
“The resistance made it more fun,” says Flor. “It’s a challenge.”
Skittles, who is chiseled and gaunt with a shock of yellow-blonde hair that recalls vintage Dennis Rodman in the doc, but now rocks a shorter, dark cropped ‘do, said he was won over “from just being around [Flor and Oppenheimer], and them constantly coming around. We like stuff like that. It shows that you’re consistent and you don’t give up easily. That gave us that bond that allowed us to talk to them.”
Flor and Oppenheimer project their respect of that bond onscreen. “[The members of Check It] are adamant about wanting to take baby steps as their lives become public and one of those steps is choosing to go simply by their first names, by the names their friends know them on the street,” says Oppenheimer. Flor says they let Check It share their lives as they saw fit.
An arresting example of this occurs in the film when Dae Dae reunites with his long-estranged, newly sober mother. He explains that drugs sucked up most of her attention during his childhood, when he really needed it. They discuss the past, anecdotally at first, and when the emotions start to well and threaten to crescendo, Dae Dae shuts down the scene, insisting that his mother take off her mic so that she isn’t seen “like this” (i.e. vulnerable). Oppenheimer told me it was important to subtly break the fourth wall and assert his subject’s agency. When I brought up how touched I was by Dae Dae’s protective gesture toward his mother, he told me, “That’s always. I just adore her.”
In the film, Flor and Oppenheimer give similar space to Tray, 25, during a scene in which we watch the system fail him in real time. In it, he attempts to report that he’s been raped. Over the line, the operator tells him that if he doesn’t know his attacker’s first and last name, she can’t file his report. “D.C. couldn’t do nothing, because it happened in Maryland,” explained Tray during a roundtable interview the day after the premiere at the office of the publicity firm handling Check It for Tribeca. Justice, in this instance, eluded Tray. “I just let it go. I forgave that person and moved on from it. But it’s back now, because it’s on film. I don’t really like talking about that.”
Check It is full of broad strokes illustrating the abhorrent realities of disparity, but nuances sneak up on you as these kids share their world views in casual conversation. One of the movie’s low-key moving moments comes when Tray talks about finding “acceptance” by turning tricks on K Street. Tray reasons that it was there that he—presenting as female—for the first time encountered men who actively sought to communicate with him, and who furthermore, offered him money.
“Friends always say I spend too much time talking to dates and stuff,” said Tray, during the roundtable. “They call it ‘lovey dovey,’ and all this, but you having a conversation. I like to get to know who you are. I really do. There are people I have dealt with off K Street [that] I still have relationships with to this day. And that was so long ago, like, four, five years go.”
“Shit, I just get in and get my money, bitch,” called Dae Dae from across the table.
“OK, Miss Thing?” added Star with a cackle, high-fiving Dae Dae.
“I would tell my friends when I went. If something happened to me, I would want them to know the last place I went to,” Tray added, gently refocusing the conversation on the grim reality of the dangers of sex work.
The typical Check It discourse I observed falls in line with this ebb and flow of seriousness and humor. It’s like a perpetual system of tension and release. The group comfortably shifts in and out of real talk and jokes, of grave life-or-death matters and a certain devil-may-care attitude about our absurd world. Its members are casually militant when they discuss wanting to change minds that associate gayness with weakness. They are casually proud about their sexuality, exhibiting none of the allergy to labels that the queer youth of today often does. They call themselves gay or, in Star’s case, transgender (Star appears in the movie her pre-transition identity, as Tay), and the guys are clearly at ease with displaying masculine and feminine aspects of themselves.
They are casual about the horrors they’ve experienced—on route to Chipotle, Erica, 24, told me about how she used to steal from supermarkets to feed her siblings when food ran out at the end of the month. At 16, she was spent nine months in D.C.’s C.T.F., with charges stemming from armed robbery and car-jacking. Because she was the only female juvenile in C.T.F., she wasn’t allowed to be among the general population so Erica spent her time in protective custody. That meant she was locked up for 23 hours a day during the week, and allowed out of her cell for just one. She spent entire weekends in her cell. She told me this so matter-of-factly, we might as well have been getting manicures and gossiping about boys. (Like many of Check It’s cisgender women, Erica identifies as bi.)
“We put people in comas, in hospitals and everything,” said Star at at the roundtable, casually. “Let me tell you, I had a baseball bat, I had a machete, all types of knives.” There’s an off-handed reference in the movie to the Check It making its victims drink bleach.
Star, and every other member, were careful to frame Check It’s fighting as self-defense deriving from being bullied. They didn’t start stuff, they finished it. When I asked what I would have to do to join Check It, Tray answered my question with a question: “Do you know how to fight?”
“If you wasn’t already in our group and you wanted to join, you had to fight somebody that was already with us,” explained Netta, 23, who is Star’s sister. She is pregnant and due in July.
“But they would protect other gay people if they saw somebody getting disrespected,” Moten elaborated.
“We done put ourselves in some people business that we could have walked away from and said, ‘That had nothing to do with us,’” said Dae Dae. “Just because they were gay, we gave it to them, because we knew we could fight. We knew we had our defense for ourselves.”
They concede that they’ve gone too far at times, and all claim that their behavior has cooled down in the time since the documentary was filmed. There are a variety of reasons for this. Tray seems to believe that Check It has proven its point.
“I don’t see none of the violence now, ‘cause that don’t pay bills,” he said. “And everybody know who we are so there’s no point of proving yourself to people.”
Check It’s members have “grown up” and all have jobs, according to Star. A few of them are actively helping run a clothing line called Check It Enterprises (Erica, for example, is their treasurer). At the premiere party, she, Star, and Moten manned a table of T-shirts that had “CHECK IT” printed across their chests. They moved 38 that night.
Additionally, three members including Dae Dae, are enrolled in D.C.’s Career Connections program, a work-readiness initiative in which they’re training to be mentors while getting paid for it.
“I want to start a nonprofit organization for youth that’s dealing with HIV, just to let them know that there’s more to life than giving up,” said Dae Dae during Saturday’s after party, bringing up a topic that goes unspoken in the documentary. D.C. has some of the highest HIV rates in the country among black men who have sex with men—an estimated 14 to 19 percent of black MSM are HIV positive. In February, the CDC reiterated an estimate that’s been floating around for years now—if rates continue as they are, one out of two black MSM in the U.S. will contract HIV in his lifetime.
I asked Dae Dae why no one talked about HIV in Check It, and he told me, “A lot of people didn’t want to speak of the truth. It hurts.”
After our roundtable interview, Check It collectively grumbled when they learned they wouldn’t get to watch another screening of the documentary. While Flor and Oppenheimer were whisked away to introduce another public screening, the members of Check It, meanwhile, were told they’d be riding down to Tribeca, at the festival’s hub building, where they’d get their pictures taken by Getty. They were assured that they’d make it to the theater in time for the post-screening Q&A, which seemed to placate at least Dae Dae. I asked if he wasn’t tired yet of answering questions about himself, having spent hours doing so on that press day alone. “No,” he told me. “I love it.”
He and his cohort then spent much of the time to and from their photo shoot on various social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. They are, after all, millennials. Their 20-minute photo shoot was goofy and hammy, with many of them overemphasizing the poses in a theatrically modelesque way that would make Tyra Banks proud.
I asked the crew what they were planning to do when they returned to D.C. Star told me she was excited to see her boyfriend. Dae Dae echoed a sentiment that he shares in the movie, during a scene in which he interns at a Fashion Week showcase for designer Cesar Galindo. In the movie, he talks about his brief trip to New York frustrating him, since it put his problems on pause without solving them.
He told me, “You gotta go back to your day-to-day life, and back to your survival skills when you in D.C., because that’s all you know how to do.” But, as if reflexively defensive so as not to come off as self-pitying, he added, “Life is always a struggle, but no one’s life is easy. You gonna have problems in some type of way. It’s just how you deal with your problems that makes your life easy. It’s how you go about things.”
“The story changes their lives, because it gives them something to live for,” said Moten, explaining what was in it for Check It to participate in the filming of their documentary. “They didn’t think anybody cared about them. So with the stuff they was doing, what did they have to lose?”