In Crystal Kayiza’s short documentary, Edgecombe, the director-producer-editor tells the stories of three residents—Shaka, Doris, and Deacon Joyner—of a rural black community in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Within these stories, the film explores how shared, historical traumas have persisted across generations, from histories of slavery to the days of Jim Crow, and how this history has created an ecosystem where the prospect of economic and social mobility for Black communities is seemingly weighted with the heft of a cinder block. In some ways, the film explains that deliverance begins as an act of faith: faith in the fruits of persistence, faith in god, and faith in the strength of community.
The film opens with a reading of “By the Rivers of Babylon,” where the speaker asks, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?” This question runs throughout the film like a fine thread. Each of the three narratives return to this fundamental question without ever really getting a satisfactory answer. However, in this melancholy, the small community still manages to find songs of hope as they reckon with the cultural and systemic prejudices that have historically (and contemporarily) left them feeling displaced in a country that is ostensibly their own.
For Edgecombe, history is not a nebulous happening or a thing forgotten. The motif of houses and homes is woven throughout the film: church as a home, a house as a prison, a plantation as the residue of slavery that refuses to fade.
In the first act, titled “House,” a young man, Shaka, is bound to his home with an ankle bracelet while under house arrest. He tells his story in voiceover as the frame cycles through shots of a thin-needled Christmas tree and gossamer-white window curtains. During the narration, we don’t see Shaka’s face until about two minutes in. The camera finally reveals him sitting on his front porch, tapping a smartphone, with cold breath twisting about like smoke. The young man looks tired with heavy eyes. Shaka tells the story of how he’d been arrested for running from the police after a traffic violation as he recharges the box shackled against his ankle. He is only allowed leave the house when working either of his two jobs, one at Applebee’s and the other at a tobacco company. In Shaka’s story, the metaphor of working while shackled is not a subtle one. He describes his experience living in a system where opportunity has become a far less manageable proposition and seeing his children for the holidays is a goal that hangs just out of reach.
The film transitions into the second act, “Homestead,” with a heavily distorted version of “Jingle Bells” until the distortion clears like a lens coming into focus. Here, Doris tells the history of her family, who owned their own farm, rather than working as sharecroppers. Only a few generations removed from slavery, the film follows Doris to the very plantation where her great grandfather worked, where she comments aloud “two more plantations still standing.” Doris’s short vignette is the story of living memory, where still-standing plantations represent an unresolved history. A history that remains persistently and ominously in the present.
In the final act, “Community,” Decan Joyner, a staple in the community, recounts clearly the Jim Crow South. Having to wait “until the negro movie starts” and standing near a water fountain that he “couldn’t drink out of.” Emotional, his voice cracks and he clenches his fist as he recalls the feeling of having his dignity stripped. Significantly, however, he refrains, saying, “but... we learned a lot from it. There’s a God somewhere.” There’s a quiet patience and restrained anger to Decan Joyner’s stories. He tells the audience, as he was told as a boy, that “it won’t be this way all the time. […] How you deal with it is what makes the difference.”
Crystal Kayiza offers no easy answers or explanations or even a resolution. But she does offer audiences a sense of resilience through community, resilience in solidarity.
People visiting the South often remark upon the absence of very old houses. In my experience, most aren’t much older than the early twentieth century. For outsiders, it may very well seem as if the American South has tried to forget its history. For Edgecombe, history is not a nebulous happening or a thing forgotten. The motif of houses and homes is woven throughout the film: church as a home, a house as a prison, a plantation as the residue of slavery that refuses to fade. What is significant about Edgecombe’s achievement is how Crystal Kayiza masterfully edits these disparate intergenerational stories of trauma as a shared experience.
The religious imagery in Edgecombe is as significant as the motif of homes. There seems to be an irony of faiths at work. That is, the characters in this film maintain faith in a country that has, so far, offered a slow return on that particular investment. Or maybe it would be better to understand this faith as a god-inspired fortitude. Crystal Kayiza offers no easy answers or explanations or even a resolution. But she does offer audiences a sense of resilience through community, resilience in solidarity. The final shots of the film comprise of close-up portraits of Edgecombe County residents. Their expressions soften as the frame cuts to black and gospel music drowns out the quiet.