New Film Looks at Harlem in Transition

Michelle Thompson | 9/8/2014, 10:20 a.m. | Updated on 9/9/2014, 7:41 a.m.
Filmmaker Shawn Batey conceived her new documentary, “Changing Face of Harlem”, with the hope of starting a dialogue between local ...
Construction at 125th street off of the 1 train.

By Michelle Thompson

(Update: 'Changing Face of Harlem' will be showing this week at the City College of New York in the Aaron Davis Hall, 160 Convent Avenue.)

Filmmaker Shawn Batey conceived her new documentary, “Changing Face of Harlem”, with the hope of starting a dialogue between local residents as they tell their stories about their relationship with Harlem and their hopes and dreams for the area. But her work has also sparked unintended dialogues about the role politicians play in developing/hindering a community, and another on funding independent film projects.

Batey’s documentary follows three central characters: Frank, a man who led a tenants’ association; Tekima, a florist; and Asadah, a new business owner. Batey wanted to hear from the residents and allow them to speak for themselves. “I kept reading newspaper articles about the changes coming to Harlem, but I never heard from the residents themselves,” she said.

Though these characters are black, ultimately, Batey argues that Harlem is grappling with an economic divide. “It’s definitely not all about race, but it’s about class,” she says.

(Click to see trailer.)

You cannot tell a story about Harlem without examining politicians’ discussions with its residents, as they are often the key to allowing financial resources into an area. One clip shows President Bill Clinton announcing his arrival to Harlem when he opened his office in the area. While many of Harlem’s black residents welcomed him, others expressed skepticism and suspected that he would accelerate the gentrification that would displace them from their neighborhood. Batey’s footage reflects these conflicting concerns: Long-time congressman Charles Rangel is relieved that money is flowing through the area, but understands that Harlem’s newcomers must employ its residents and spread the wealth.

Batey spent 10 years working on “Changing Face of Harlem,” much longer than she had planned. While the political, economic, and social changes in Harlem lent themselves to a long-term framing of the film, she encountered her own challenges in terms of funding this independent project. Before there was a Kickstarter, she turned to people she knew in a letter-writing campaign. However, when she did her crowd-funding campaigns, she noticed that she was competing for funds with producers who had larger circles of giving and people with much deeper pockets.

At this point, Batey sees herself as an expert on fundraising for independent film projects and hopes that in the future, “Kickstarter and Indiegogo would develop tiers of fundraising.”

“Changing Face of Harlem” is not Batey’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. “Hair-tage,” a cultural documentary about dreadlocks, and “60+,” a film about elder female steel drum players, have been screened at film festivals and used in schools.

“Changing Face of Harlem” also has a personal dimension. Batey has seen the effects of gentrification first hand. Before she became a Harlem resident, she lived and worked in Chicago, in the Bucktown neighborhood. That community started out as a working class Polish and Puerto Rican neighborhood (not unlike Greenpoint in New York City) when she moved in, but now it looks like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. She had also read about Magic Johnson opening the movie theater in Harlem and knew that this signaled a change in Harlem. This became the seed of “Changing Face of Harlem.”

You can catch the documentary, 'Changing Face of Harlem,' this Thursday at 12-noon at the City College of New York, in the Aaron Davis Hall, 160 Convent Avenue. For tickets see the official Harlem International Film Festival website.

You can also catch the film this October in Maysley's Documentary Center.


Michelle Thompson is a fellow at the CCNY-Amsterdam News Urban Digital Media Lab.