Survival Mode

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“I’m fucking serious,” he said, stone look on his face.

Tim, our director of photography’s best friend, was explaining the ins and outs of where we’d be shooting that afternoon. Canadian, but currently residing in Chicago, he had a good knowledge of the streets and the politics of our location: Chicago’s South Side.

“This is a place where a lot of America’s gun crimes happen. Last month there was 60 shootings,” he told us; the DOP, the audio tech and myself. Three white guys, four with Tim, aiming to take a camera into neighborhoods known for their tribal sense of territory and inclusion.

We hit the Lake Shore and drove south, then east, after twenty minutes the decor changed from polished Chicago to Buffalo, or Watts, or the deepest crime ridden streets of Miami. Grass growing taller than toddlers. Road lines rubbed raw of paint. A gap between tricked out rides and rust on wheels. A huge increase in public transit buses and lines at the bus tops. And, most noticeably, not a single white person save for us four shiny whites in a black Dodge Grand Caravan.

When we crossed in, you could feel the tension in the air. At stop signs, drivers took looks at us, driving away slowly. When going through an intersection, a woman pulled out in front and yelled something from her Mustang, then took off. At each location, 5 in all, front porch sitters with jingling cigarette packs watched us. In front of an abandoned store front, the place where the true criminal was arrested, two men wearing different styles of red did not blink as the DOP and Tim got shots. They stood at their corner, smoking, until we left. The DOP mentioned he was going to shoot the back of a man walking down the street, but Tim saw him trade drugs just moments before, and stopped our cameraman.

“Don’t tell them the story,” Tim told us. “Because the story is divisive. Tell them you’re shooting something for the community, or say you’re shooting for Obama.” In one neighborhood, with young girls leaning over a buff guy’s ride, one of them asked what we were doing. We threw out the Obama line, she said she wanted to say something. The camera was panned over to her and she screamed, “WE LOVE OBAMA!” They all smiled before getting back into the van.

When we returned, and our director, the same one I’ve wrote about a few times, asked us how it went, Tim told the stories as well as his own experiences. Later, as we four went to dinner, without the director, he told us that she didn’t believe him. I nodded in silent agreement. Her politics, at least in that moment, did not let her believe that she couldn’t talk her way out of a South Side scuffle. She considered us paranoid, even when she was taken to the same place the next day, men in red walking the streets.

Its a strange thing driving into these places willingly. Your body knows when you’re putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. A smart man listens to that reaction. When you see a guy fiddle with his pockets on a corner, not crossing, something is up. When four or five men in similar colors crowd around a sidewalk, something is up. When you’re watched or walked toward and your brain says DANGER, listen. In South Side, its blacks. In East LA, a place I ended up in when working in Hollywood, its Hispanics. Even in some places in the South, the same rules apply for whites. Your brain is the product of millions of years of survival. It knows what its doing.