Richmond native Donte Clark always believed his life had a purpose. Lately, he seems to have found it.
Clark, 25, a spoken-word performer and show producer, is the subject of a new feature length documentary, Romeo is Bleeding, directed by Jason Zeldes. The film follows Clark as he produces an adaptation of the iconic Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet,” rewritten to fit a Richmond narrative.
“We were trying tell our story through the lens of a story the world already appreciates and knows,” Clark said.
Born in Oakland, Clark is a fixture of the Richmond arts scene. He was named poet laureate of Richmond in 2014. He also works at RYSE, a youth group in Richmond where he is an impresario of spoken word poetry performances.
Zeldes followed Clark for more than two years, from the inception of his play, “Te’s Harmony,” to opening night. Clark’s theater production switches the Montague and Capulet feud to a story of north Richmond vs. central Richmond. The two neighborhoods were at odds for 10 years, a cauldron of gun violence, after a seemingly minor squabble launched a cycle of revenge.
The movie offers a stark portrayal of the violence and daily challenges of living through this siege. Clark and his characters give the message urgency through their performances. There are also some real-life tragic moments in the film, grounding the play’s production in a sense of reality.
“This is an opportunity to walk you through the lives of young people and what we go through —through the conversations we have, the pressures that we have, the lives that we have, how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis,” Clark said.
He points out the larger societal forces at work in places like Richmond.
“It’s bigger than me and you,” he said. “It begins with our parents, but it’s even bigger than them. It’s systematic and it’s a history and decades of trauma passed down.”
Zeldes, director of the movie, is from Los Angeles, and decided to document Clark’s play after his cousin Molly Raynor, director of RAW Talent, told him something special was happening up in the East Bay.
“Donte is kind of a superhero,” Zeldes said. “What strikes me about Donte is regardless of the room he walks into or the size of the crowd he is speaking to, he has this innate ability to connect.”
The film is a riveting ride through Richmond and its complex issues. From the beginning, the story takes dramatic twists, but gives us a historical context to understand how current issues came about.
Shooting started in 2012 on the same day fire struck the local Chevron plant. “What ended up happening is we discovered through Donte and the students a much bigger story that was happening,” Zeldes said. “This is a really visceral reminder that there are larger structural and systematic injustices at play in Richmond and places like Richmond.”
Scenes were unscripted.
“We left a lot of room for real life to intervene and breathe some sort of magic within the movie,” Zeldes said. “Real life started to parallel the story of Romeo and Juliet in some real and tragic ways.”
Zelda hopes that the film will start a dialogue on gun violence and the toll it’s taken on America’s youth. The film is being shown at film festivals nationwide, and recently won the Grand Jury Prize at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.
“It’s a hopeful story because it’s showcasing somebody who has found a way to communicate on a really high level,” Zeldes said. “Donte is somebody who was given a choice at a couple different crossroads in his life and he was going to use his ability to communicate for good or evil. But he keeps on choosing life.”