When the BlackStar Film Festival, highlighting cinema culled from the African diaspora, hits venues around University City starting Thursday, it will bring its usual retinue of serious narrative and documentary fare.
BlackStar's closing film happens to be its starkest, darkest entry: Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story, a documentary from filmmaker dream hampton about the vicious 2011 murder of a black trans teen, 19-year-old Shelley "Treasure" Hilliard, who was ritually burned and dismembered, as though her murderer had a desire to erase rather than kill.
Hampton's doc examines the tenaciousness of Hilliard's mother, Lyniece Nelson's, quest for justice. She doesn't seek it just for Treasure's sake but for the trans community.
"In our country's political, social climate, Treasure deals with so many of the issues our most under-resourced communities are facing: postindustrial economics, police harassment, and gender-based discrimination including, but not limited to, transphobia," says BlackStar artistic director Maori Holmes. "It's the strongest closing nighter because it ultimately addresses #BlackLivesMatter in an urgent way."
That's director/writer dream hampton's specialty. Then again, she has a lot of specialties. Hampton is a music video director, a producer at BET, an early advocate of Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, the coauthor of Jay Z's Decoded, and a journalist who has contributed to the Village Voice and Vibe. Her first full-length doc, Black August Hip Hop Project (2010), sought to heighten awareness about political prisoners in places like the United States, South Africa, and Cuba. "Never meant to do documentaries," says hampton, whose first narrative film, 2002's I Am Ali, won a best short award at the Sundance Film Fest. "I got caught up in docs because I care so much about these issues and stories."
Hampton became aware of Treasure because the teen was a member of Detroit Future Youth, a network of young activists that hampton's daughter Nina belonged to. "Treasure's murder shook our community, and sat at the intersection of things many of us care about, from Jim Crow drug laws, police coercion of youth, hostile racial borders outside of Detroit, to transphobia, and to an issue that many of us may not know about, the issue of gender self-determination," says hampton.
In November 2011, Detroit police identified the charred torso of Hilliard, who had been reported missing the month before. LGBT activists believed the teen's murder was a hate crime because of the brutality of the circumstances.
Additional information about police involvement later came to light: Hilliard had been coerced into informing for police on local drug dealer Qasim Raqib and companion Marquita Clark after half an ounce of marijuana was found in her hotel room. For a trans woman, the thought of being jailed in a men's prison was potentially more threatening than informing on drug dealers.
Hilliard's name was allegedly leaked by police. Raqib was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for Hilliard's murder. Nelson, Treasure's mother, is seeking punitive damages from the police who made her daughter an informant for violation of due process and wrongful death.
But hampton doesn't focus on murderers or forensics. "It was important for me, in fact, that they be absent from the film," she says of any criminal element. Treasure is not a police story about another trans person's murder.
She says one criticism from the trans community about mainstream media representation is that people are "only interested in their bodies as corpses."
"I did not want to do another film that fetishized trans death. . . . It was more important to me, when I think of a documentary with a certain amount of real estate . . . that living trans people occupy that space," she says.
Hampton allows Treasure's friends in Detroit's trans community to talk about her, as well as their struggles. "It was important that the vibrant, living young trans community, many of them activated by Treasure's death, see themselves in this film," she says.
In a lot of ways, hampton's Treasure is right on time, considering the media attention trans issues have received as of late as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Yet hampton has long fought against police brutality. "The only thing 'recent' is our ability to amplify issues on social media,"
hampton says. "It's imperative that we center trans women - they are the most vulnerable when it comes to interaction with the police, and if the most vulnerable of us are not safe, then none of us are safe."
"Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story."
5 p.m. Sunday at International House, 3701 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $12 for general admission; $8 for students and seniors.