YOU HAVE SEEN THE FIFTH WARD. it appears in a standard photograph that accompanies stories about Houston. In the foreground there are miserable row houses, so peeling and dilapidated that they practically crumble before your eyes; in the background the gleaming, majestic skyscrapers of downtown loom over the pathetic houses and glisten against a clear sky. The photograph is intended to show the extremes of wealth and poverty that exist so close together in Houston.
The Fifth Ward is the subject (and the title) of a film written, produced, and directed by Nestor Gregory Carter, 31, that was entered recently in the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin and received generally positive reviews. Carter, who once lived in the Fifth Ward, risked $80,000 of his own money as well as $40,000 from investors to produce Fifth Ward, the first feature film from his company, Nexus Films. “Every time I got a paycheck,” Carter says, “I had to decide whether to buy film or buy food.” Actors worked for deferred salaries, and he still has to raise $80,000 to finish a 35mm print of the movie. Even so, he has been invited to show Fifth Ward in the Acapulco Black Film Festival in July. (“Plus,” he told me, “they’re going to pay my way to Acapulco!”)
While discussing what should be included in the package of articles about the Texas film industry that appears in this issue, I saw various films about Texas or set in Texas, but Fifth Ward was the one that I couldn’t get out of my mind. It has all the faults of a shoestring production by someone who is making his first film. The technical quality is erratic, and the acting, which is never completely polished, ranges from generally effective to incompetent. But Fifth Ward is genuine, the work of a green but talented man with a clear artistic perception. Its realism elbows its way into your consciousness and stays there.
Carter directly addresses one of the most controversial issues in black America—black flight. Simply put, the question is this: Is it morally right for a talented black person to leave the inner city to pursue his own interests and leave the interests of his community behind? If he stays, the problems of places like the Fifth Ward may eventually drag him down; leaving means abandoning friends and family, perhaps forever. Is an individual’s duty to himself or to his community? Carter’s answer to these questions in Fifth Ward is strong and clear.
As close as it is to downtown, the Fifth Ward is like most other ghettos in that it is practically sealed off from the rest of the city. It’s bounded by freeways and intersected by railroad tracks. Within its boundaries is a mixture of residential streets lined with small homes and large industrial tracts, including Union Pacific’s rail yards. Otherwise, signs of economic activity are few. There are bleak storefronts for rent, and the businesses that are there—small groceries, barbershops, bars—offer few luxuries.
All the ills of modern America plague the Fifth Ward—crime, drugs, violence, disease, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, fatherless families, domestic abuse, neglected children. The reasons are many, but a principal one is certainly grinding, pervasive poverty. At most of the grade schools in the area, more than 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which means their parents receive food stamps or are on welfare or have incomes below the poverty level.
This sad situation is not new. An article we published on the Fifth Ward in February 1979 cited a whole array of depressing statistics, and they were old news even then. Nevertheless, as intractable as these problems are, it’s important to remember that the statistics describe the general situation rather than any individual. On some streets the houses are defiantly pretty and well kept, and even on more bedraggled blocks, one house will often stand out. There are attractive new homes too, like the ones near fire station nineteen. Barbara Jordan came from the Fifth Ward. So did Mickey Leland, George Foreman, and the great jazz saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. And there are other success stories, not so well known, of doctors or lawyers or business owners who came from the Fifth Ward. The people in these stories all have one thing in common. Although they began in the Fifth Ward, they all left as soon as they could.
Nestor Gregory Carter left as soon as he could too. More precisely, his parents took him out as soon as they could, but now he has come back—sort of. The third in a family of five children, he was born in Eldorado, Arkansas. His father, a minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, moved to another congregation in Lufkin before coming to Houston in 1979 to preside over a church there. For a time, the Carter family lived with relatives in the Fifth Ward, making an indelible impression on young Greg. The family soon moved to a different neighborhood, where Carter attended high school, and then he went on to Texas A&M and graduated with an engineering degree. During his college years, Carter discovered the theater. He performed major roles in a few productions and began writing plays under the guidance of the late Charles Gordone, who had won a Pulitzer prize in 1967 for his drama No Place to Be Somebody: A Black Comedy. Out of college, married with a child, and working as an engineer back in Houston, Carter took filmmaking classes at Rice and just last year produced and directed Fifth Ward.
James is the movie’s main character. At seventeen, he lives with his mother; his half brother, Lil’ T; and Lil’ T’s father, Toney. As the movie opens, James’s beloved older brother, Rayray, is murdered by armed robbers who have kicked in his door. This forces James into a crisis of indecision. Should he stay with his friends and family in the Fifth Ward or should he try to escape?