Taking Poetry, and Film, into the Classroom

SFFILM recently visited high school classes with the poet Donté Clark, the subject of the award-winning film “Romeo is Bleeding”

On March 14, the Education Team from SFFILM visited Balboa High School with Donté Clark, the poet from Richmond who was the subject of the SFFILM-backed award-winning 2015 documentary Romeo is Bleeding. After a successful visit last year, the teacher reached out to us again earlier this year for a repeat visit with her new cohort of English students to coincide with their poetry unit.

We gathered in the school theatre with a big contingent of students from three different classes. A few of them immediately approached Donté to talk about their experience watching his story on screen, their craft, their lives. All the students had watched the documentary in class in the weeks before the visit and complemented their viewing with a special study guide. They had discussed the film and thought about questions they might want to ask, with the more nervous ones submitting their written questions to their teacher for her to pose in an informal Q&A with Donté. Before that, however, he gave a performance of one of his pieces drawn from his contemporary Richmond-based adaptation of Romeo & Juliet that appears in Romeo is Bleeding. The theatre was totally silent, except for the odd gasp, as Donté threw off his beanie and walked the stage, arms gesturing and lyrics pouring rhythmically out of his mouth.

There was then a Q&A. The first one was a request, through the teacher, for Donté to read a poem the student had been working on. After that, the questions ranged from spirituality to race to the simplistic beauty of “does poetry make you happy?,” along with specific questions about the film and the play. His responses drew on the values of education and lifelong learning to the personal decisions that he had made in his life to end up in his position, as a creator and cultural figure with numerous projects on the go. “What do you think was the strongest or most powerful line in the play?,” one of the students asked. “‘I know you was expecting us to choose death, but tonight you choose life.’ I think that piece was the strongest line in the play, and why I chose to write it. Violence only begets more violence, and in Richmond we have already lost too many people. In Verona, it was only Mercutio and Tybalt who died, and then Romeo and Juliet took their own lives. But from where I’m from four people get killed in one shooting, that’s a weekend. So showing another body is not so powerful, so it was important for me to rewrite that: they expected death, but instead we chose life. Everyone stood up and went crazy.”

The kids, engaged and inspired, recognized that this person was sharing closely with them, and one was even inspired to talk about loss that he had experienced through violence in his own neighborhood before the questions continued and the hour flew by. His talent for connecting with young students is brilliant and it is fabulous to see him work each and every time we are lucky enough to have him join us, and these aren’t easy Q&As by any means. Finally, one student came to the front to share his poem with the audience before the bell rang — and then a few students lined up to talk to Donté, to share with him their stories and their ideas, and glean a little bit more from his experiences. “I loved being able to connect with him,” one student said, and another added: “it helped me think about writing and poetry in a different way. I thought it was kind of boring before seeing the film and hearing him.”

Even though it was two years ago that Romeo is Bleeding was in the Festival (and won the Audience Award for Documentary that year), it has had a lasting impact not only on Donté but also to the many who have seen him on screen, let alone the thousands of students that he has spoken to in classrooms and at events. The film was directed by Jason Zeldes (the editor of 20 Feet From Stardom) and depicts a fatal turf war between neighborhoods that haunts the city of Richmond, CA., telling the story of how Donté Clark transcends the violence in his hometown by writing poetry about his experiences and working with a community arts organization. Using his voice to inspire those around him, he and the like-minded youth of the city mount an urban adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the hope of starting a real dialogue about violence in the city. “I’m always excited to be able to share my stories,” Donté said afterwards, “and to provide any guidance or perspective about the life and journey of an artist.”


Tom Winterbottom

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