Deontay Wilson’s ‘epic poem’ documentary receives heartfelt community response

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By Sophie Vodvarka

The Kehrein Center for the Arts recently hosted the premier of filmmaker Deontay Wilson’s award-winning documentary “Westside Stories: Paradise Lost.”

Wilson, who grew up on the West Side, said his documentary is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “I’ve always been a fan of epic poetry. Since I was a kid, I’ve been dreaming about authoring an epic narrative about the West Side of Chicago.”

The documentary takes its name from the famous epic poem “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. The film is the first in a 10-part series telling the story of West Side neighborhoods, from the perspective of locals. It won “Best Documentary” at the Crown Point International Film Festival.

Much of “Westside Stories: Paradise Lost” shows this history of Black West Siders, starting with the two Great Migrations. The film shows historical footage of when North Lawndale and Garfield Park were booming neighborhood. “It was beautiful,” one interviewee says on screen.

The documentary describes how Black migrants to Chicago looked out for one another, helping each other get jobs and acclimate to the city. It also showed the differences among the migrating populations who settled in the South and West sides — tensions still alive today.

The film begins to dive into the root causes for the current problems facing West Side residents — systemic anti-Black racism and the disinvestment of industry from the neighborhoods, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilson is working on two more films in the series. “Fire Sale” will dive into discriminatory housing practices that led to white flight and systemic disinvestment on the West Side. “Pure Dope” will chronicle the impact of drugs on the neighborhoods.

Wilson says his hope for creating the documentaries is that viewers will come away with more context.

“The problems that communities of the West Side have here are really not that much different than other inner cities all across America – other Black communities,” he said. “So if you look at a community that is Black and has all these problems, you come away with either one of two conclusions: A, that there is something defective about the people themselves, or that B, there is something defective about the system in which the people live.”

West Side stories, according to Wilson, is an attempt to add historical context to the struggles of people living in this defective system. Wilson said people living under the kind of pressure West Siders face every day, have to spend their lives fighting over the “scraps that are left for us to eat, to live on and to build on.”

Yet, Wilson says, “In spite of all of that — we persist. We continue to try to fight and struggle for our piece of the American dream. It’s that spirit of resilience in the face of tragedy that is the hallmark of what it means to be a West Sider to me.”

Fr. Larry Dowling of St. Agatha’s Catholic Church is a prominent figure in the film and Wilson’s production partner. The film shows images of St. Agatha’s, portraying it as a space of great importance in Wilson’s personal journey.

After the film, Fr. Larry and Wilson led a panel discussion. About a dozen participants asked questions, and many West Side neighborhood residents expressed their admiration and gratitude for Wilson’s work.

Rich Daniels, director of The City Lights Orchestra and a prominent Chicago-based musician, introduced the film.

Wilson, who earned a degree in political science from Western Illinois University and attended the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, says returning to the West Side has been a healing experience.

Wilson said creating art around the neighborhoods where he grew up “reminded me of who I am and where I come from.”

“Doing this documentary helped me find myself again. My mission is to use my creativity and my art as a herald of truth to my people. Every day I work on “Westside Stories” is a reminder. It still hasn’t worn off yet — it feels so good to be home. I missed the West Side of Chicago so much.”

Follow Wilson on his instagram page @code_switchers and stay tuned for information about the next installments of his films.

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