Six Young Men Defy Stereotypes in Documentary ‘Finding the Gold Within’

March 19th, 2015

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

Published: March 17, 2015 – 07:20 PM | Updated: March 18, 2015 – 12:11 PM

No gangstas. No thugs. No pimps.
Finding the Gold Within, a documentary coming to the Cleveland International Film Festival, is about six young black men, but they are far from stereotypical. The centerpiece of their journey is going to college. Their efforts have been aided by Alchemy, the Akron organization that helps guide adolescent males into adulthood, including through strong role models and the use of myth and storytelling.

Finding the Gold therefore has a story that is not often heard. According to the film’s director, Karina Epperlein, it is not even one that drew much interest. Not, that is, until shootings of young African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland and elsewhere raised once again questions about how black men are seen in parts of the culture at large.
After all, the shooting incidents have been accompanied by more than a little victim-blaming. And even when news organizations cover events, the coverage may be skewed because the reporters do not know the community they are covering.
ABC newsman Byron Pitts recently underscored that. As Poynter Mediawire reported, “When something tragic happens or a crime is committed, journalists rush to the community to get a reaction, he said, and they end up speaking to [whoever] … is home during the day. Often, the people who have jobs are at work, so the news reflects an incomplete image of a community because journalists there may not be familiar with what the complete image of that community looks like.”

“Without a doubt, there’s too many negative stories,” said Kwame Scruggs, founder and executive director of Alchemy. “That’s why I started what I do. As a child, I was told I was worth nothing. … I was trying to have youth not feel the same way I did.”
So there is a hunger, even a demand, for another kind of story. Just consider how much Finding the Gold Within will be presented in the days ahead.

Two local screenings

It will have two showings for the Cleveland International Film Festival, one at 7 p.m. Friday in the main Akron-Summit County Public Library with a panel discussion following (and ticket purchases are already on standby). Another is at 4:45 p.m. Saturday in Cleveland’s Tower City Cinemas. It will also be part of the festival’s FilmSlam series of presentations for students, and shown in a free community screening at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Regal Montrose.

Also, in conjunction with the film, Heights Christian Church in Shaker Heights at 4 p.m. Sunday will host the live-theater presentation, The Gold Within — Feel Us: Life as a Myth, Poetry and Drumming, with the six men in the documentary: Brandyn Costa, Stacee Starr, Imani Scruggs (Kwame’s son), Tyler Jones, Darius Simpson and Shawntrail Smith.

“I hope that audiences get a sense of the struggle that almost every black male goes through on a daily basis,” Imani Scruggs said recently by email. “We are perceived differently by society, and obviously that perception is not always positive, or correct. I believe that this film shows not only what the adolescent black male is capable of, but also how these micro-aggressions affect us in our day-to-day lives.”

The film began about six years ago when Epperlein met Kwame Scruggs at a conference.

“We just kind of hit it off,” Scruggs said. There was no talk about a documentary at the time, but Scruggs later sent Epperlein photos of Alchemy youth when they were sixth-graders and of them later as they were finishing high school. “She just said, ‘wow, there’s a story here.’ ”

“I was mesmerized,” said Epperlein, a veteran documentary maker whose previous subjects had included the Armenian holocaust and the stories of women in prison and their children. “Studying the faces of them, and the growth I had seen. And how open their faces still were when they were older. I didn’t see posturing, and so I felt this inner call.”
Passionate about film

That inner call took her to Akron, beginning in April 2011 and continuing periodically into 2014. There were trips to the men’s college campuses, not only the University of Akron but also Case Western Reserve, Kent State, Tiffin and Eastern Michigan.
Epperlein had won over these men even though she could have been seen as an interloper: a white, 61-year-old immigrant from Germany, still with a bit of an accent.
“It was quite a stretch,” Epper­lein said with a laugh. “But I’m a very passionate person, and I saw a film that could bust all the stereotypes about young black men.
“Twenty years ago, I worked in drug rehab and in prison, and I saw the stereotypes from the outside and who [the young black men] were on the inside. So this was a great opportunity. And I immediately said that, to all of them. … They took to that very much.”
The film itself is a close-up on the men, both literally and figuratively. When the men are in a circle as part of Alchemy’s process, the camera is in the middle, drawing the audience closer. Instead of just showing their experiences, the film has the men talking about them, often with great feeling, directly to the camera.

In the end, Imani Scruggs said, “The film came out better than I expected, and it is primarily thanks to her unique sense of artistry. After having seen the film six or seven times at this point, I am still catching various cinematic effects that she put in the film that I did not notice previously. …

“The entire experience was truly miraculous in the very essence of the word,” he added. “It can be considered a miracle for a middle-aged, German woman to introduce herself to a group of urban, adolescent males and to be able to integrate so effortlessly. The fact that Karina and her entire camera crew could be present within the circle, but not affect our interactions with each other, really spoke to her ability as a film director as well as to how beautifully fluid her personality is.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.