Streetwise/Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell: Qualities of Life

<em>Streetwise/Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell:</em> Qualities of Life

Cinema has the ability to radically reorder our worldviews, to bring margin to center. It can transform subjects on the social fringes into matters of concern fundamental to human life. This is the power of Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, and Cheryl McCall’s Streetwise (1984) and Bell and Mark’s Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016), films impossible to turn away from, not because of the social horrors they expose (and they expose plenty) but because of the humanity they reveal in the struggles of their subjects. These portraits of teenagers inhabiting the streets of Seattle in the 1980s and of one of those kids thirty years later each condense time in a different way—from a typical day on the streets to a lifetime building a home—in order to show the daily routines that threaten to destroy their subjects, but also those that allow them to truly live. In the camaraderie between the teenagers Rat and Dewayne and Tiny, in the kinship forged in the home of Erin Blackwell, we see the transcendent moments that make freedom real. We also see how very fragile such moments can be in a world that demands you sacrifice your time and your labor in order to simply survive. “The only bad part about flying,” the intrepid and itinerant Rat laments in the opening monologue of Streetwise, “is having to come back down to the fucking world.”

In Streetwise and Tiny, these struggles are intergenerational, a shared dynamic between parent and child. In form, the films belong to the genre of documentary, but they also rank among cinema’s most powerful stories about families struggling to get by, such as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, where father and son share a quest to rescue the means of their livelihood in postwar Italy, or Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, where children inhabit the physical and emotional spaces left empty by their striving parents in postindustrial Los Angeles. And like those works, these two films gain much of their power from how they channel the qualities of a real time and place: in this case, a Seattle transformed by gentrification beginning in the eighties.

The story of how Streetwise came to be in Seattle is certainly ironic. The city had spent the early part of the seventies in an economic crisis: the Boeing Company, the region’s principal employer, was facing bankruptcy and had laid off over sixty thousand workers locally starting in 1969, leading to the worst unemployment an American city had seen since the Great Depression (the COVID-19 pandemic brought such numbers—and worse—to many U.S. cities in 2020). For Seattle’s boosters, the negative publicity in the national media that followed was humiliating. They spent the remainder of the decade desperately trying to resuscitate the city’s image as a cosmopolitan destination for white-collar professionals, including a concerted attempt at selling Seattle as a shooting location for feature films. While that produced only a handful of mostly forgettable movies, the broader promotional campaign went gangbusters. Beginning with a 1975 feature in Harper’s magazine, Seattle became a regular fixture atop lists of the “most livable” cities in the United States, according to metrics such as income rates, incidences of crime, and cultural amenities (measures that frequently privileged whiteness; Time magazine, for instance, declared in 1977 that the city had “too few blacks for any real racial problems”).

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