Kevin Epps' 2003 film Straight Outta Hunters Point was the first in a spate of gritty, verité-style "blockumentaries" to expose the rarely seen underside of an inner-city neighborhood. Shot in digital video and mostly void of narration, it traced the history of beefs between Hunters Point gangs Big Block and West Mobb, but also showed the reality of day-to-day life in federally subsidized housing projects. What made Straight Outta such an astonishing and bracing film wasn't the urgency of its message — it had no definitive one — but the filmmaker's closeness to his subject matter. Epps had sold drugs and been in jail for many years throughout his life (his last stint, for old traffic warrants, lasted four days in 2007) and is still familiar with that world, even with his newfound fame. He didn't have the kind of arms-length distance necessary to criticize and moralize, but he did have access — to ramshackle projects, late-night hang-outs, rap studios, and all sorts of places that few other filmmakers would ever dare set foot. Indeed, the real romance of Straight Outta is the fact that it came from an insider, and that watching it, you feel like an eavesdropper.
Epps kept the same template in most of his subsequent work, including the 2006 film Rap Dreams (about local rappers Mistah F.A.B., Kev Kelly, and Hectic) and current work-in-progress, Straight Outta Hunters Point 2, which focuses on changes in the characters' lives after the demise of PG&E's polluting Hunters Point Power Plant and rise of new land development in the community. Last year, while shooting Straight Outta 2, he got an idea for another film that would focus exclusively on gun violence in Oakland. Epps has lived in Oakland several times during his adult life and has family there. He describes it as the East Bay's proper analogue to Hunters Point, both in terms of poverty and the high murder rate. In this film, though, he chose to telescope in on three men who had been shot and lived to tell the tale. "It's about being black men and being victims of gun violence, but not dying," Epps explained. "I wanted to explore the psychology behind that."
The resulting short, Popped in Oakland, is seven minutes long and backed by a dryly orchestrated rap-beat soundtrack similar to the one in Straight Outta Hunters Point. It starts with a pan along International Boulevard and a close-up of two guys exchanging a fat roll of bills for a plastic bag of weed. Featuring a couple sound bites from San Francisco General Hospital trauma surgeon Andre Campbell (who compares gunshot wounds to "having a bomb go off inside your abdomen"), the film mostly focuses on three gunshot victims: Henneessy of East Oakland, Travis of North Oakland, and Damon Hooker of East and North Oakland. Their stories are compelling. Henneessy was shot twice, once with a Mac 90 and a 40-caliber, and once with a "kada" (street slang for an AK 47, Epps said). Travis got clipped by a bullet that cut straight through the front window of his van and went right through his hand — he has permanent nerve damage and can't move the muscles any more. Hooker called 911 and got an answering machine six times; he briefly lost his vital signs in the hospital but doesn't remember it. "I was just like blankin', you know how you get hyper-scared?" he recalled in a subsequent phone interview. "Then after I got to the hospital I like fainted. I wasn't breathing and stuff."
Like its predecessors, Popped in Oakland is neither melodramatic nor shrill, and only provides scant social commentary. Again, most of its appeal is that it comes straight from the source, with no filter or intermediary. Popped now airs on Current TV, a satellite TV network and Internet site featuring short, nonfiction videos submitted by viewers. Last year the short won a Silver Telly Award in the cultural category. The film's producer, Roberto C. Grijalva, who works for Current TV and met Epps at a 2003 screening of Straight Outta, said that Epps' idea of talking about gun violence from the victims' perspective — and casting victims who appear to be in the game themselves — gave Popped a unique individual slant. "To me what's important is that we're capturing stories from the other side of what you'd see on the ten o'clock news."
Epps currently lives and works in a small Mission District garret with a small kitchen, bedroom, and adjacent studio that he's filled with cameras, editing equipment, and a couple desktop computers, plus crates filled with old videotapes and DVDs. On a recent Thursday afternoon he held court, while three young interns worked on a commercial for the Boys & Girls Club and a PSA denouncing the Measure G land development campaign in Hunters Point. The smell of lasagna wafted in from the kitchen, and sparse, melodic hip-hop beats reverberated from one computer. (One of Epps' interns raps with the Hunters Point outfit Bread Me Out, which contributed to the soundtrack for Straight Outta 2). Sauntering around the office in Air Jordans, pink stunna shades, and a baggy Hunters Point T-shirt that hung like a tent over his wiry frame, 38-year-old Epps looked pretty young himself. He said he'll be ready to retire in a few years, but for now he's still enjoying the cult of celebrity generated by Straight Outta, and running his film enterprise the way someone would run an indie hip-hop label.
Like his subjects, who present themselves as victims but proudly display their scars, Epps projects an air of moral ambiguity. He navigates in the straight world but remains close to the streets, and manages to straddle that line more adeptly than anyone else in his field. When he went to jail last year, Epps said he reunited with a lot of old friends and got to hear their current music projects. One of the women who booked him couldn't believe she was standing face-to-face with the real Kevin Epps, and ran to take a picture with her cell phone. He said that the Straight Outta films have put him in a lot of precarious situations — that he's been threatened multiple times, and even had guns pulled on him. Fortunately, there's a big difference between the filmmaker and his subjects, in terms of how they settle beefs. "You just kinda diffuse the situation," said Epps. "You know what I'm saying?"
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