There are moments, scenes and sequences in the documentary “Out of Omaha” that will make your heart hurt.
The seven-years-long portrait of African American twins from the roughest neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska allows you to put yourself in these kids’ shoes in those moments.
Suppose you were blindly and unjustly accused of a crime, that the cops, via Crimestoppers, put your name and face out there, which too-helpful local TV broadcast during the evening news? Suppose this happened more than once?
Forget the fact that the people charged are young, African American men and that this happens in a small city or later, in an even a smaller one, so that strangers on the street will recognize you even after exoneration.
Ignore the reality that the local newspaper and the TV stations that posted your mugshot into living rooms all over the region don’t cover that “charges dropped” part of your story.
How could anybody, much less somebody young and with limited resources (POOR) escape that trap and avoid becoming a self-fulfilling law enforcement-mandated prophecy?
Clay Tweel’s years-in-the-making film is framed within seven years of the life of Darcell Trotter. He is 25 when we first see him, sweeping a floor in 2017. But seven years before, he was a promising kid studying hard, trying to break out of Omaha’s notorious “North Omaha” neighborhood.
Here’s lawyer Wayne Brown, who moved back after escaping a fate chiseled in stone by this phrase.
“My family was in the heroin business.”
Brown is a shining, upper middle class pillar of the community now. But with the siblings and parents who died or went to prison when he was trapped in the red-lined North Omaha neighborhood, a region roiled by protests and violence in the 1960s, buried in poverty, despair and drugs even today, Brown makes the perfect witness to all that will happen to Darcell and the conditions that led to it.
North Omaha “is a six square mile radius that is trapped in 1965.”
Darcell’s dad left the family, a slave to his addictions. Darcell’s twin brother Darrell is more about gang life, “get some money” by any means, “whether it’s hurting somebody or not.”
And here is Darcell, starting school at the University of Nebraska, benefiting from Avenue Scholars, a scholarship and counseling program designed to move people like him out of the gutted dead-end of North Omaha.
What’s the worst that could happen?
“All it takes,” Darcell says, “is for one thing to go wrong, and you’re incarcerated.”
Brown and members of Avenue Scholars talk about the “bad choices” we see Darcell “make” over the next seven years, and invite us to reason out an alternative to those choices, given the poverty, environment, peer and family pressure facing him.
Kids get into selling drugs because that is the neighborhood example, the local industry.
Even if Darcell dodges one pothole, there’s his twin, resigned to stepping right in it. For Darcell, it just takes one night of being in the wrong party with the wrong people at the worst possible time for it all to come apart.
We taste the bitterness of “a dream deferred” in both young men, experience the hope that bubbles up when they leave North Omaha for Grand Island (150 or so miles away) to stay with their father.
Steady work? Sure. But even in Grand Island, where just two percent of the population is African American, the twins get profiled while making appliance deliveries. And that’s just the beginning of their problems.
Everything somebody with a financially stable home life takes for granted, the automatic assumption of innocence, for starters, emergency money to cover a big bill (a lawyer), a support system that can keep you not just out of trouble, but giving you the direction that makes you steer a wide path from it, is missing.
Not every “choice” Darcell makes can be shrugged off or excused. But the real take-away here is the shocking realization of how quickly a young life can be derailed by a “system” that arrests, charges and holds people who are not so much accused as “named” in an incident.
Imagine trying to clear yourself, emptying your pockets and considering selling a little weed just to cover for a lawyer, when all the cops really want is for you to “talk.” Just give them somebody else’s name.
“Out of Omaha” isn’t an American nightmare. There are rays of light and hope that young people like the brothers can be rescued, “break the cycle” as the cliche goes.
But watching this, you will never, ever look at a local news photo of a “Crimestoppers” suspect the same way again.
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug use discussed, profanity
Cast: Darcell Trotter, Darrell Trotter, Barbara Robinson, Wayne Brown, Yano Jones, Aubrey Caballero
Credits: Directed by Clay Tweel, written by Clay Tweel, Tim Grant, Ryan Johnston, Steven Klein, Damien Michael Belliveau. An Imperative Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:37