When we first meet 17-year-old Daje Shelton in the documentary “For Ahkeem,” she has been expelled from her regular public high school and is appearing before a municipal judge.
St. Louis City Court Judge Jimmie M. Edwards presents the teenager with a seemingly last-chance option to earn a high school diploma: an alternative education program with which the judge is closely involved.
Daje (nicknamed Boonie) doesn’t really want to go to the alternative program, the Innovative Concept Academy. But her mother, Tammy, is a source of encouragement and high expectations despite their testy relationship.
Boonie is soon enrolled in the alternative school. From there, it’s a cinema vérité look from directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest at Boonie’s life in a poor neighborhood in north St. Louis. The film was shown this month as part of AFI DOCS, the documentary film festival of the American Film Festival in Washington.
There is the girl’s street-smart friends and her boyfriend, Antonio, who dropped out of school in 10th grade and has had various scrapes with the law. There is a funeral for an academy student who falls to street violence.
Soon, Boonie is pregnant, which isn’t welcome news to her mother, who seems to see it as one more obstacle to Boonie getting a diploma. But Boonie decides to go through with the pregnancy, and the result is the film’s namesake, a boy named Ahkeem.
At the alternative school, Boonie is smart, but sometimes unfocused. Still, she returns after giving birth and seems intent on achieving that diploma.
Meanwhile, during the course of filming in 2014, the police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Mo., occurs, bringing the nationwide debate over police treatment of young black people within the orbit of Boonie and her family and friends. (They mostly seem to watch the Ferguson protests on TV, including while in school.)
The directors, Levine and Van Soest, told the audience after the AFI DOCS screening on June 16 that there was no way they could have predicted that a national story of race and justice would unfold nearby while they filmed Boonie’s life.
Like so many education-related documentaries, the story in “For Ahkeem” comes down to an all-important test. If Boonie can pass her algebra test, she will join those who walk the stage at Innovative Concept Academy. If she doesn’t, there are any number of pitfalls that await her.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.