SANATA BARBARA, CA-In the overall synopsis of the movie-going experience, there are films that inspire you. Then there are films that really inspire you to shake yourself off, get yourself up, and become part of the human involvement project. That would require doing for others. That would also mandate making a difference in people’s lives routinely and without fanfare instead of becoming something of an extraordinary, celebrated feat.
There’s always an exception to the rule. The conscious efforts of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig J. Mitchell to turn the lives around of the men and women living on the streets on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, deserves more than a pat on the back. The unwinding hours Mitchell puts in counseling and motivating the homeless at the Midnight Mission, is worthy of merit and praise.
Mitchell, however, is not concerned with accolades. He is a man driven to help others. Those others happen to be society’s most vulnerable: the homeless. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, on any given night, nearly 58,000 people are on the streets in Los Angeles County. A good chunk of these individuals who are homeless have experienced domestic violence (34 percent), suffer from mental illness (30 percent) or have substance abuse (19 percent) problems.
African Americans, which make up just 8 percent of the population in Los Angeles County, make up 40 percent of those displaced on the streets. In short, the least and the have-not can be found down on Skid Row where Mitchell purposes his philanthropic deeds. Where does Mitchell find that inner voice to give back? Perhaps Mitchell’s humanitarian drive comes from the 17 years he spent working in the classroom as a teacher.
Maybe it comes from living on Indian reservations as a college student that Mitchell got more acclimated to how the disenfranchised survived. It could come from the haunting experience of receiving a full, upfront visual tutorial of seeing the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots as his mother sought for him to understand the plight of other people and what they had to deal with.
Whatever the case may be, what we see of Mitchell in the well-pieced documentary, Skid Row Marathon, which was shown as part of the excellent trove of films at the 33rd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), is through a unique lens. Skid Row Marathon, which claimed the SBIFF Audience Choice Award, is a fascinating look at the duality of a jurist who is bound by law to mete out sometimes harsh sentences, but someone who is able to find the compassion to assist the downtrodden and forgotten help get their lives together.
The end pathway that Skid Row Marathon director Mark Hayes and producers Gabriele Hayes and Doug Blush takes audiences on is one of discipline, self-accountability, redemption and lasting friendships that extend well beyond the walls of Mitchell’s courtroom.
Mitchell and the individuals that he befriends are joined together in commonality through the art of running. That happens when David Askew, who Mitchell sentenced to prison, comes back to the judge and asks him to visit the Midnight Mission. Mitchell obliges Askew’s request. He shows up at the Skid Row facility and is moved to do something. That something was to get some of these individuals hitting the pavement with him.
Running is an art of discipline. So Mitchell, an avid runner, thought that through this regimen he might be able to get some of these individuals to buy in to what he was selling: by running that would in turn shift to self-accountability, which would then would lead to the possibility of re-shaping of their lives. It worked. Mitchell started a running club. After it’s official start up in 2012, the Skid Row Running Club has more than thrived. It has transformed and saved lives.
Just Askew, who is now an aspiring artist. Ben Shirley had to overcome alcohol and drug addiction to get his life together. The Skid Row Running Club became his saving grace. Today, Shirley works on composing songs in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Technology and Applied Composition program.
“I don’t think as myself as anything special,” Shirley said. “I think maybe if somebody sees that (Skid Row Marathon), like in recovery, if somebody see that, it’s like, ‘Well, if this asshole can do it, maybe I can do it.’ It shows a sense of community, which none of us can speak on. Whatever it is I think I’m doing, I don’t know. We can’t do it on our own. It’s help. It’s a circle of good that I’m involved with right now, that we’re all involved with.”
That camaraderie of goodwill Shirley speaks about starts with Mitchell, who now has the Skid Row Running Club participating in marathons in other countries. The Skid Row Running Club will take part in the 2018 Jerusalem International Marathon in March.
“I had no idea where this was going,” Mitchell said. “That’s one of the wonderful things. I go down to the Midnight Mission, just on a whim. That whim now has turned into an incredibly vital program on Skid Row.”
The storylines in Skid Row Marathon are riveting. Besides examining the head-on struggles of Askew and Shirley, the film also follows the ups and downs that Rafael Cabrera-paroled for murder-and Rebecca Hayes (drug use and alcohol) face. The one thing the documentary does best is show the human element component that encompasses the men and women who have to deal with their day-to-day challenges.
“The main message we’re trying to get out there is that homeless people or people that need a second chance are worth it,” Mark Hayes said after one of the screenings of the film at the SBIFF. “If you give them some attention, you’d be surprise what they can accomplish. People think, oh, they see a homeless person, this person’s worthless. The people that we followed-who were homeless, who were convicts, parolees…once given a second chance-they didn’t disappoint. Not everybody succeeds. Like one character we followed, he relapses. He starts drinking again. Now that guy is running with the club again. It took him a while to come around, but he did. We just want people to take a second look at people and understand they’re worth our attention.”