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Flag Wars
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by Todd LaPlace

"Who won the war? I’m still not sure."
3 stars

I saw a piece on “Flag Wars” that theorized that the scenes showing a Christian man spewing anti-gay hate were supposed to suggest that the gay community of Columbus, Ohio was in need of a refuge and that’s why they began taking over a poor black neighborhood. It’s a reasonable assumption, especially since the filmmakers opted to take themselves completely out of the mix and shoot cinema verite-style. If the two directors had decided to use a voiceover, however, maybe they could have mentioned that Columbus actually has two thriving gay-friendly neighborhoods, the artsy Short North and the historic German Village. Because the filmmakers offer us nothing more than a point-and-shoot picture on the complex issues surround the gentrification of an urban community, its easy to make those kind of assumptions, because the movie’s untapped potential offers us nothing else in the end.

“We feel for these houses,” says one gay man in “Flag Wars,” a cinema verite-style documentary that looks at the urban gentrification of one Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. In one slightly callous statement the entire conflict at the heart of this film has been succinctly exposed, although it unfortunately takes directors Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras half their movie to get there. Full of crumbling Victorian homes, Old Towne East is predominately a neighborhood of poor, elderly black homeowners, but the historic architecture and low prices have begun to attract a new demographic; affluent gay white males that seem to care more about the homes than the people inside.

In case it’s not already obvious, the two groups are immediately put at odds with one another. With the new gay residents primarily buying, fixing and quickly reselling homes at a profit, they have a vested interest in the older homeowners complying with the zoning regulations of the neighborhood, recently labeled a historic district. So when complaints about crumbling eaves and broken-down campers are filed against longtime residents, they’re quick to blame the new residents popping up around them. One resident served with a complaint it Chief Shango Baba Olugbala, a Yoruba priest and wood carver. Hanging over his door is a wooden sign that lists his new title and address, but since it violates the regulations about home exteriors in the district, he’s frequently hauled in front of a judge to plead his case and after every courtroom appearance, he seems to get more and more enraged about the interlopers in his area.

Even though it’s clear that the directors were attempting to let the story unfold naturally, it’s hard not to suspect favoritism toward the black residents. After all, it’s Bryant’s former community and her parents are prominently featured participants. The two most notable black representatives are Olugbala and Linda Mitchell, a likeable woman stricken with cirrhosis and the aforementioned eaves and camper, both of whom are frequently pulled into court to resolve minor complaints against their properties. It’s interesting to note that the most featured gay resident is Nina Masseria, a lesbian realtor who’s expressed interest in getting her hands on Mitchell’s home, which has apparently seen so much interest that Mitchell’s resorted to actually writing that she wasn’t selling on the side of her house.

Shot over four years, Bryant and Poitras luck out by getting shots of Columbus appearances by the Ku Klux Klan and Chuck Spingola, a local Bible-thumping gay-basher that was arrested when he climbed the flagpole at the statehouse to pull down a rainbow flag and ceremoniously burn it. Shown together, the sequences are clearly designed to link the two groups as the primary targets of bigotry and hatred, but the directors never see the thread all the way through. Similar is the story of Jim Yoder, a cash-strapped gay man seeking a mortgage that will keep him afloat while he continues to renovate the house. Most of the big companies won’t deal with a homeowner whose property is still being completed, but Yoder somehow manages to swing a deal. Yoder seems like a genuinely nice guy, but you can’t help buy wonder if his inclusion in the film was strictly to point out the class and race difference inherent in the two groups. Likewise, though, Bryant and Poitras drop the story before any real conclusions are drawn. It seems like they’re trying to make points with these stories, but they can never quite get all the way through to the moral. Stories are simply left hanging. Spingola makes a second appearance at a hearing about his actions, but after making a bigoted rant about homosexuality in the Bible, he disappears again and we never get any kind of resolution (he was fined $100 and spent 5 days in jail, in case you were wondering). Even though he’s merely a fringe player in the story, not even directly connected with Old Towne East, by including him, the filmmakers have interwoven him in the film and he deserves a resolution, just as much as the other characters (although only one of whom really gets one).

While I do appreciate that the verite-style has eliminated the pompous Michael Moore-esque interruptions, a voice over would have done wonders to untangle this intricate mess. With the two groups opposing in race, class, sexual orientation and flag style — the neighborhood’s increasingly common gay and black pride flags give the film its title — there are so many issues that need to be dealt with that simply aren’t. With the tension building, the gay residents are forced to convene after many of them become victims of robbery by black men. While comparing notes with the police officers present, someone wonders whether they’re being targeted because of their wealth or their sexual orientation — until the officers remind them that racial slurs against the black perpetrators were used in several of the incidents. It’s such a powerful scene, but it’s never given any context. What are the crime statistics for the area and how did they change after the influx of gay residents? With this type of information excluded, the film never really gets past its portrait of a divided community’s prejudices, it never finds a sufficient resolution and it never fulfills its unexplored potential.

I never would have thought that my little Midwest town could be home to such an important and interesting debate on race, class and sexual orientation. I also never would have thought that my little Midwest town could be the subject of such an underwhelming, mediocre movie. Oh well, we’ve still got “Sneakers.”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=7342&reviewer=401
originally posted: 04/14/07 01:52:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/12/09 janis hott the story is great but twists the true events and motivations of the real parties 2 stars
7/25/04 Gary Metzenbacher The filmmakers don't tell the whole story of derelict houses being made into homes. 1 stars
8/31/03 E. Anthony Mackall Interest'g, poignant, human&soc'l insights aplenty.Pthbreak'g virtuoso doc See charliv stry 5 stars
6/23/03 Idotress Joseph, MHS Awesome 5 stars
6/23/03 Craig Blubbers along, inconsistent,fantastic idea, poor editing by the filmmakers. 3 stars
6/18/03 charles chaney excelent view on revitalizing neighborhoods 5 stars
6/18/03 mark wedekamm why did'n these good ol'floks fix up and keep up there homes before it cost so much. 1 stars
6/16/03 Ashley E. Daniel Very powerful 5 stars
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  02-Apr-2003 (NR)



Directed by
  Linda Goode Bryant
  Laura Poitras

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