After Judge Jimmie M. Edwards founded an alternative, last-resort school for juvenile offenders in the same neighborhood as the gang-ridden public housing complex where he’d grown up in St. Louis, Missouri, editors and readers of PEOPLE selected him as one of the 2011 Heroes of the Year.
Inspired by the mission of the school’s caring staff — but also by the kids who found traction turning their lives around —PEOPLE Staff Writer Jeff Truesdell, who reported the magazine’s feature about Edwards, and a team of filmmakers have now made Edwards’ Innovative Concept Academy the backdrop for a feature-length documentary. For Ahkeem is the deeply personal tale of one young student as she experiences loss, love and dreams that never fade amidst her realities of gun violence, juvenile justice and the high numbers of dropouts being incarcerated in the school-to-prison pipeline.
The film receives its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday in New York.
The New York Times recommends For Ahkeem as an “up-close, slice of life documentary (that) profiles Daje Shelton, an African-American teenager in north St. Louis struggling with school, family and motherhood.” Variety writes: “Its focus on one young woman struggling to graduate implicitly says that no matter how common the story, every person matters.”
In its review following the film’s world-premiere last February the Berlin film festival, The Hollywood Reporter stated the filmmakers “get us invested in her future, and that of her infant son who gives the film its title, conveying an affecting sense in the end that she has found a resilient spirit to carry her forward.”
Filmed over more than two years, For Ahkeem opens in Edwards’ court after Daje, then 17 years old, is expelled from her mainstream public high school for fighting. When, midway through her story, her tale intersects with the 2014 police shooting down the road of a young black teen named Michael Brown, Daje reflects with hope on the world she wants to create for herself and the son, Ahkeem, she has brought into it.
“This is a gorgeous, cinematic coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Ferguson,” wrote Cara Cusumano, director of programming for the Tribeca festival. “With a character we absolutely fell in love with, it’s an intimate story that seems to speak to nationwide questions through one very personal story.”
The film’s co-directors, Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine, say they were drawn to the story by the chance to explore the rates of expulsion and punishment that disproportionately affect black and brown children, “and here was this judge who was trying to do something about it,” says Levine.
Adds Van Soest: “Judge Edwards can be a bit of a complicated figure for the kids in his school, and we tried to show that. Daje is not at all happy about the fact that she has to leave her normal school, but the selfless, supportive community she finds at the academy ultimately changes the way she feels. By the end, Daje literally embraces the judge.”
“It’s clear to me that he would do anything in his power to help any individual at his school,” he says, “and the tough love he shows the kids is in every way to support their best interest.”
Edwards says that being featured in PEOPLE “gave us instant credibility as we went about spreading our message of economic inclusion. But equally important was that the recognition spurred other groups to replicate the model in their cities. And as they did, we captured many great new ideas that we could bring back home.”
Innovative Concept Academy, launched in 2009 as a model partnership between the juvenile courts and the St. Louis Public Schools, was at the time the first of its kind in the U.S.
While Daje’s experience in the documentary “is by no mean atypical,” Edwards says, “it beautifully reflects the redemptive power that supportive structured schooling offers our most endangered children.”
Says Levine: “We heard so many incredible stories, and the film could have developed in so many directions.” The filmmakers actually found Daje when she unexpectedly walked into a scene they were filming at another student’s home, as two other girls were braiding hair. Daje “jumped up on the bed and started talking about boys, gossip around the school and her past traumas.”
“She was clearly incredibly intelligent and had this energy and openness that immediately drew us to her,” he says. “And she also seemed really excited about being involved, which was crucial as we were going to go down this multi-year journey together.”
In a diary-like voiceover developed with the filmmakers as the documentary was put together, Daje shares that she was first suspended from school at age 5. “Can you imagine what that would do to you if you were being suspended when you were in kindergarten, when you were in first grade?” Levine says. “If you were told you were bad from such an early age, you start to believe it about yourself. And so you start acting out further.”
“Judge Edwards wanted to break this cycle,” he says. “He talks about how it’s important to have a space where kids can be kids, where they can be told they aren’t bad.”
“Our public schools are filled with so many heroes who work tirelessly to see their students succeed,” Levine says. “As a country, we need to do a better job funding and supporting them.”
For Truesdell, a St. Louis native and the documentary’s executive producer, the film project offered a chance to draw wider attention to juvenile justice and education reforms in his hometown that he says deserved to be discussed elsewhere. But despite its geographic anchor, Daje illustrates “a universal American story,” he says.
Edwards praises the role of teachers and staff working with “children who are too often stigmatized, cast aside and overlooked by our society.”
“In my mind,” he says, “there is nothing greater than the joy of a compassionate heart and a willingness to act.”
For Ahkeem shows April 23, 24, 25 and 28 at the Tribeca Film Festival.