Getting Out

May 1998By Comments

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? His friends are his mother; Lil’ T; Rip, a boy his own age who has begun selling guns for a living; Earl, James’s uncle, who works as an emergency medical technician in the neighborhood; and most important, Haan, the daughter of the Vietnamese couple who own the grocery where James works. Haan is home on vacation from the University of Texas at Austin, and the two quickly begin a romance. She admires his paintings; he admires her venture into the remote, frightening world of college.

James’s enemies are harder to define: two jaded white cops who patrol the neighborhood; Toney, who now lives with James’s mother and periodically abuses her and his son, Lil’ T; Bam, the crime boss and gunrunner. But most of all there is the Fifth Ward itself. None of the people are truly bad, not even the callous cops. Instead, they have all been perverted by the place where they live, by the pathology around them. It has forced them to become what they would never have become otherwise. Even James’s mother had worked briefly as a prostitute after the death of his father. James must live with knowing that and knowing that everyone else in his world knows it too. His friends, especially Rip, want to know why he is going “soft”—why he seems not to want to follow them into the life of street crime and mayhem. But James can’t bring himself to reject them totally, because he sees that without these friends, whom he has known all his life, he would have no friends at all. When James asks his mother why she stays with Toney and puts up with his abuse, she says, “You have to stand by somebody sometimes, or you’ll always have nothing.”

The movie ends with a terrible bloodbath that consumes Rip, one of Rip’s gang members, Haan’s father, and Haan herself. James’s indecision causes this terror, and the deaths are finally enough to make James change his life and separate from the Fifth Ward. In the final scene he is at the University of Texas, saying in a voice-over that his heritage forced him to choose between standing and lying down, and he had decided to stand.

This is an uncomfortable, unpopular, and disturbing message. James has decided to save himself and to give up on the community. Or perhaps he sees that everyone else has given up, so he might as well too. Fifth Ward is a black voice saying that the pathology of the ghetto is so bad the only hope is to leave. Don’t get swallowed up yourself trying to fix the unfixable.

“The strong enough get out,” Carter says. “The not quite strong enough . . . get devoured. It sounds like an easy decision. You just tell the folks around you, ‘You are robbing people and selling guns, and I’m not with it.’ But as soon as you say that, it gets all convoluted. Your mother is there, and maybe her lights have been turned off. Maybe your brother has got to have some money.” Carter can speak with a fervor and eloquence that remind you he is a preacher’s son: “I mean these are people. You put a face on some of these bad statistics, and it’s not so easy to pontificate. And the Fifth Ward is always trying to pull you back. Because you know that except for the people in it with you, no one really cares. The conservatives just say lock ’em all up. The liberals do a bleeding-heart thing now and then. Even the cops in the movie. They’re not bad because they’re racist exactly. They’re not saying, ‘I hate you.’ They’re saying, ‘I don’t really care.’

“But the real situation is this. In the Fifth Ward you have a group of people who are determined to survive by doing anything at all, whatever it takes. And the rest of the world is determined to do whatever it takes not to care. That’s the problem. That’s why the best you can do is to get out.”

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