Before the pandemic began to take its terrible toll and before the city erupted in spasms of protest and other assorted turmoil, Jahmal Cole had been doing his best to make a difference in the lives of people few of us ever see in neighborhoods most of us never visit.
He is still at it, this young man who in 2013 founded an organization called My Block, My Hood, My City, its ambitious aim to provide opportunities for the disenfranchised young people of the city’s disenfranchised neighborhoods and otherwise heal what ails us.
He now plans to jump into politics. Though he is unlikely make a formal announcement until early April, he has made public his desire to challenge Rep. Bobby Rush for the 1st Congressional District seat in Congress.
Filmmaker Jason Polevoi is not at all surprised. “Over the years people were always suggesting that he run for political office, for alderman, for mayor.”
During 2018, Cole was followed by camera-toting Polevoi and the result is a riveting and powerful and enlightening film titled “A Tiny Ripple of Hope,” which is currently having its world premiere, as part of the Slam Dance Film Festival, a virtual event this year.
Polevoi, working on a shoestring budget, shows us Cole addressing crowds in the film and you’ll see the people in those crowds watch and listen with rapt attention, heads nodding. You easily grasp Cole’s charismatic persona, a quality mentioned by virtually anyone who has ever met him.
You’ll hear from some of those. There’s that former Chicago mayor named Emanuel; the late Karen Lewis and musician/activist/politician Che “Rhymefest” Smith; poet/activist/teacher Kevin Coval; Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer and Liz Dozier, the former principal of Fenger High School and later founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond.
There is Lena Waithe, the native Chicagoan who is a screenwriter and producer of, most prominently and topically, “The Chi,” who says, “Even when the dark clouds hover, you can’t keep the sunlight out.” There are articulate others.
But Polevoi does not overuse any of these “stars.” His focus is firmly on Cole and the kids with whom he works, many of them part of the Explorers program, which monthly takes young people into places in the city and beyond that they might never have seen. We meet the kids and observe the joy and excitement as they travels and wander the Notre Dame campus in South Bend. We see the palpable pride of some of the kids’ parents.
Cole, rightfully, is the star, rivaled only by his charming, scene-stealing daughter, Khammur, in a few tender scenes that belie the tension that his work has caused in his marriage.
Cole will not be unfamiliar to you since you have likely already seen him on television, most recently perhaps as the organizer of the groups of people who carried shovels into snow bound neighborhoods to unshackle us from piles of snow that crippled the city.
Partly a celebration of Cole and what he us trying to do, the film also speaks frankly to his own rough and tumble childhood, as he shuttled back and forth between his parents. He talks of being homeless at 11, saying, “I didn’t get a chance to grow up because I had to grow up right away.”
He went to college, worked in conventional jobs. But his desire to be a community organizer lured him into his current life and it has come at a price, financial and emotional. We watch as Cole struggles to keep his Chatham home from falling into foreclosure, keep his marriage intact, deal with a drive-by shooting in which he may or may not have been the intended target.
It is obvious that Polevoi and Cole developed a trusting relationship during the year of filming, for we see some moments intimate enough to be jarring. But they give the film a potent emotional heft. There are tears.
There was some talk, considering last year’s events and changes in the social-racial fabric of the city, to perhaps reshape and update the film. Polevoi wisely decided that it could stand as is.
Year 2018 was an honor-filled year for Cole. He was named a Chicago Defender Man of Excellence and awarded the Chicago City Council Resolution Award. He was named one of Chicago’s 20 most inspiring people by StreetWise Magazine and a Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Magazine. There have since been other awards and with them increased visibility and donations. His organization seems to be on ever more solid footing. In two days in June it raised $1 million for small businesses hurt by looting, vandalism and the pandemic. He also contributed a commentary for the Tribune on the difference between protest and violence.
“Jahmal’s mission is timeless and universal,” Polevoi.
Polevoi’s film was one of eight documentaries chosen from some 350 submissions to the Slamdance Film Festival and that thrilled him. He has become good friends with Cole through their journey to the screen and says, “Jahmal wants to make a tangible difference in whatever ways he can. Whenever he decides to run for political office, he will have my vote.”
Watch this film and you will understand why.
“A Tiny Ripple of Hope” is part of the Slam Dance Film Festival through Feb. 25; $10 festival pass at slamdance.com.
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