Simply put, this profoundly compelling and thought-provoking documentary is the best case study available of the social and human consequences of urban gentrification in contemporary America. Filmed over a four-year period in Columbus, Ohio, “Flag Wars” explores with eye-opening candor and unforgettable poignancy the effects on a long-established black neighborhood when gay white professionals move into and begin to transform the area.
The film unfolds as a narrative drama with multiple storylines and memorable characters. There is Nina, a lesbian realtor who lives and works in the neighborhood and is at the center of the changes taking place. The changes include the designation of areas of the neighborhood as a Historic District (creating restrictive housing codes), an increase in code enforcement complaints, and efforts to reduce low-income housing in the community.
Code enforcement is complaint-driven and seems to target long-time residents like Linda, who believes the new gay residents moving in on her block are responsible for the code and zoning citations that have landed her in Judge Pfeiffer’s Environmental Court. Linda suffers from cirrhosis of the liver and lives on miniscule disability payments. She refuses to address the zoning violations and her limited resources prevent her from making repairs to her home. This puts her in jeopardy of arrest.
Baba, a black Yoruba priest and plumber, is the founder of the neighborhood community gallery, which occupies the bottom two floors of his three-story house. The sign with his name and address that he hangs above his porch is now in violation of Historic (i.e., Victorian) Code because it is carved in an African-relief style. Baba is also prosecuted in court before Judge Pfeiffer and faces fines and possible arrest for refusing to remove his sign.
Jim, a working-class gay man, works two jobs to buy a boarded-up and run-down Victorian house in the neighborhood. He risks his financial future when he purchases and begins renovations on the house using credit cards.
Once cited as the “All-American City,” Columbus is steeped in middle-American manners and traditions. While located principally in a neighborhood known as “Olde Towne,” the film’s characters intersect the world outside the community when they are targets for protests by the Christian Right and the Ku Klux Klan.
As the film spirals to its seemingly inevitable yet nonetheless surprising conclusion, it provides a sobering and extraordinarily revealing look at the everyday reality of social processes occurring throughout the nation.
“Flag Wars” will engage and inspire students and stimulate discussion in a wide array of courses in sociology, urban studies, American studies, African-American studies, social psychology, cultural anthropology, gender and gay studies, and public policy issues.
It was produced by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras of Zula Pearl Films for the Independent Television Service, in association with P.O.V./American Documentary, and the National Black Programming Consortium.