James Rutenbeck on creating an authentic narrative in “A Reckoning in Boston”

On the long drive back from a funding meeting with ITVS about his new film, A Reckoning in Boston, James Rutenbeck says that Kafi Dixon — one of the main subjects in ...
January 24, 2022

On the long drive back from a funding meeting with ITVS about his new film, A Reckoning in Boston, James Rutenbeck says that Kafi Dixon — one of the main subjects in the film, and also Rutenbeck’s co-producer — turned to him and asked if he was afraid of making himself as vulnerable for the film as she and fellow co-producer and doc subject Carl Chandler had made themselves.

This question came following advice from ITVS VP of content Noland Walker that if Rutenbeck didn’t bring more of himself into the film, it wouldn’t be any different from every other film of its kind. Rutenbeck took this advice to heart, realizing that, in addition to centering his film on Dixon and Chandler, his own voice could bring their experiences into sharper relief.

A Reckoning in Boston sees Rutenbeck, a white, suburban filmmaker, documenting low-income students of color at a Boston night school. The film focuses specifically on Dixon and Chandler, two adult students who are facing eviction.

Initially, Rutenbeck wanted to make a film about the Clemente Course in the Humanities in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which offers low-income adults the opportunity to learn through dialogue about the humanities, critical thinking skills and writing. He soon realized he wanted to expand the scope of his film, and over the course of five years he filmed Dixon and Chandler’s personal lives and struggle for housing justice. Throughout the filming, Rutenbeck became more aware of the political and social barriers that low-income people of color encounter in Boston, and was forced to confront his own complicity in these structures.

What sets A Reckoning in Boston apart from similar documentaries is that Dixon and Chandler were both brought on as producers of the film. Rutenbeck says he did this when he realized his own cultural limitations as a filmmaker, and to bring some equity into his working relationship with his subjects.

“I had an intuitive sense that it would work with the three of us, because at that point I had known them both for several years. I trusted that we could do this collaboratively,” Rutenbeck says.

“It definitely could have gone south for us if there were different people involved, so I’m not prescribing this as a one-size-fits-all approach to filmmaking. I do think that there have to be new models of filmmaking that allow for more collaboration, especially if white people are going into Black communities to tell those stories.”

Rutenbeck sat down with Realscreen to discuss the new film, which is part of PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’ series. The film premiered earlier this month, and will be available to stream on the PBS Video app until February 15.

What brought you to this project in the first place, as the perspective you took on this project shifted throughout the years you worked on it?

In 2014, I approached the teachers and the director of the Clemente Course in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and asked if there was any way that I could get access to film the course, over the span of a year. Initially when I went there, my original premise was to make a film about the students and their progress in this course, and their engagement as scholars in a rigorous night course that was requiring their full attention and engagement with art, philosophy and history, and look at the transformation that came from that.

That piece remains in the film, to some degree — the power of [the] humanities. But as I spent more time outside the classroom with two of the students, Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler, and I saw the obstacles that they were facing every day in their lives, I realized the limitations of that film premise. Because whether or not any of those students were transformed — and I think many were in different ways — they still had to walk out that door at the end of class and into the same society that they walked in from.

I realized that I needed to bring that larger context of their lives into the film. So the humanities story became more secondary, and the structural racism and all the obstacles that these two people were facing in their lives became more central. The larger context for that was the city of Boston, and this sort of overheated development and gentrification, and all these things that were going on economically that were pushing low-income (people), especially people of color, out of the city and displacing people.

How difficult was it to shift the focus of this documentary after you had already begun work on it?

For the first two or three years, and throughout the whole five years, this was not a film that was heavily funded in any way. We were piecing together small grants and a lot of pro bono time on my part, to make this film happen. So we didn’t have any producing partners that were saying “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” That allowed me the freedom to think more creatively and more equitably about how we can all work together. I was spending so much time with Kafi and Carl, talking to them, trying to understand their stories, and trying to get their narrative right. These kinds of longitudinal films are powerful, because if you’re a filmmaker who is that persistent and continues working on a project for that long, inevitably you start to understand the context of the stories and the characters more deeply.

There was a conversation going on among non-fiction filmmakers about these ideas around extraction, and about who can tell whose story, and I was definitely following those stories. There was a point where I felt like I was arrogant to take this on and to think that I could make this film on my own. I was spending time with these two people, they were showing me things about their lives in a very generous way, and it became very clear that it needed to be a more equitable relationship, especially since it’s a film about equity and these characters’ lack of equity in the city. So I brought them on contractually as producers, with a share in the film revenues. I retain creative control, editorial control. Then we continued working, and we spent a lot of time together, and I was talking to them about their narrative and what they felt was happening next in their lives and how I could direct the film in a way that would tell that piece of the story if that was what we felt was important.

Why did you make that decision to bring Kafi and Carl on as producers on the film?

I think most journalists would say, “I’m equipped fully to use all the tools of journalism and everything I know to report on a story in an accurate way.” But I think fewer journalists would admit that they have cultural limitations that might limit the authenticity of that reporting. I recognize that my background, as a white man living in a suburb of Boston removed so much from their life experience, limited me in some ways. It was really important to me for this narrative to be authentic and true. Just recognizing that was the smartest thing I did. I knew that we could work together, because we have been working together and the collaboration could work. I’m not saying it was always easy — it was sometimes fraught and complicated. But we all believed in the film, and felt the film could possibly make a difference.

How did Kafi and Carl’s roles on the film, creatively or otherwise, change after they became producers?

One example was the film’s ending. There were some really good things that happened to them over the course of the years. It would have been possible, and I did actually edit a version of the ending of the film that was pretty upbeat, and they both pushed back on that. I was basically bringing my regard and almost a reflexive kind of narrative-filmmaker approach to telling the story and ending it in a satisfying way. They both pushed back on it and said, “Our lives and struggle will continue, and to resolve things so neatly is just a way of allowing viewers to walk away from the film and feel good about themselves and the film, and it shouldn’t be so easy.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.