In his first film, Michael Smith reminds us that America is a dangerous place for young black men and breathes life into the headlines and homicide statistics to reveal an emotional story about death and living with loss. Jesse’s Gone is an incisive, excruciatingly tender look at the frayed lives of the family and friends of Jesse Rahim Hall, a promising young rap artist from East Oakland, California whose voice was muted by the bullet of an unknown assailant. The San Francisco Bay Guardian praised this hauntingly rhythmic film, saying, “This much unchecked honesty and anger cuts to the core of too many uncomfortable realities.” Jesse’s Gone will air nationally Tuesday, June 24 at 10:30 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV continues a decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
“When I started this film four years ago, the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 25 was murder,” says Smith, a 32-year-old black filmmaker. “I decided to do a story about a drive-by shooting and how a family makes sense of a young man’s death. The central issue is how people live with death, loss, and love.” Smith began work on Jesse’s Gone after seeing an East Oakland mural painted in Jesse’s memory by his friends.
“The film reflects the mural as a memorial of one event, one individual, while telling a bigger story, which is the complexity and heartbreak of these times in which we live,” says Smith. “Murals, like the one here in Oakland, memorializing love, pain, loss, and these times can be found across our country in cities where the young die violent deaths.”
In 1992, 22-year-old Jesse Rahim Hall, an innovative young musician on his way to being signed by a record label, was shot to death while sitting in a car outside his house.
One of the 8,000 American black men murdered in an average year, he may never have seen his killer. But they are linked by a frightening reality: 90 percent of these homicides are committed by other black men. Jesse’s Gone personalizes and universalizes these homicide statistics, offering an eloquent tribute to one young man dearly loved by those who knew him, and a poignant reminder of all the other young black lives abruptly and senselessly ended by “a snap of the clip and a pull on the trigger.”
Jesse’s Gone includes emotional interviews with Jesse’s relatives, friends, and members of his rap group, Hobo Junction , as they share feelings of shock, anger and grief at his sudden, tragic death – emotions seldom heard on the evening news. “It eats me up,” one friend, Lamar Barnes, says bitterly of the violence. “That’s what a lot of people think makes them men, when they can go up and smoke somebody.” Jesse’s father, Bobby Hall Sr. and grandfather, Napoleon Hall speak candidly about their thoughts of revenge. “Right then, I wanted to find out who killed him and go shoot him,” his grandfather admits. “My pastor…told me that if I saw [the killer], God wouldn’t let me hurt him,” Bobby confesses, with tears in his eyes. “But even if God spoke to me, I think I’d hurt [the killer]…. I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to see him. Not for me or for my soul.”
But guns and violence are a fact of life in East Oakland. Some, like Jesse’s 20-year-old sister, Jamita, are resigned to the danger. “There’s nothing you can do if they get killed in the street, because death is everywhere,” she says matter-of-factly. In the inner city, birth and death too often come back-to-back, a point illustrated by the on-camera delivery of Jamita’s second child, a niece that Jesse will never see. At the center of all the sadness, there’s a jagged hole where Jesse should be, an absence underscored by Smith’s use of original music by Hobo Junction and video footage of Jesse laughing, rapping, and talking to his baby son.
Smith shot the scenes with Jesse’s mother, Mona, last. “We were working in very close quarters and it was a very powerful interview,” the filmmaker recalls. “I’d been working on the film for two years by then and I thought I was desensitized, but when she started crying, I started crying. Their son is gone. He was their prince. Now they’re living with ghosts.” In some of the film’s most moving footage, Mona sits in a dimly lit room, surrounded by shadows and memories, clutching a T-shirt Jesse designed and gave to her before he died. Mustering all of her strength, she sadly recalls the last time she spoke to her son, as he was on his way out the door on the night he was killed. “My bedroom door was closing really slow…and he said, ‘Mama, I love you.’ And I said, ‘I love you baby,’ and I didn’t realize when he closed that door, it was like he was closing his life away forever.”