The documentary First Friday begins with a point that resonates throughout the film and serves as the core from which the rest of the movie expands. "In the same year, Oakland was rated one of the top five destinations in the world and one of the top five most dangerous cities in the country. Once a month, those two realities meet." That monthly occasion is First Friday, the street fair that takes place in Oakland's Uptown district and at one point drew crowds of more than 20,000 from all over the region.
By the end of 2012, the First Friday street fair had matured into a beast — a joyous, chaotic celebration in which guerilla sidewalk concerts and unregulated street-vending flourished alongside art openings. Then, in February of 2013, it came to a head. A young Oaklander, Kiante Campbell, was shot in the midst of the street party, and many blamed the rowdiness of the event. On social media, concerned locals passed around a post that Lukas Brekke-Miesner had published on his blog 38th Notes, which framed the event in terms of a culture clash but stressed that everyone should be held accountable. "If you are quick to point the finger at ratchets, hipsters, thugs, or police, take a step back and craft a more nuanced analysis," he wrote. "We need to address this together."
It was that shooting and that post that inspired N'Jeri Eaton to reach out to fellow filmmaker Mario Furloni about making a documentary that would attempt to encapsulate the complex social dynamic of First Friday. At the next monthly street fair, they showed up with a crew of eight video and sound teams to follow people around the event, capturing a near-comprehensive snapshot of the night.
The cast of First Friday deliberately represents a microcosm of Oakland. There's the old school, First Friday organizer and Oakland native who, at one point in the film, asks a young, hip vendor to put away his jewelry made from vintage bullet shells. There's the high school-aged foster youth from East Oakland who has a particular investment in the fascinating convergence of subcultures and sense of inclusion at First Friday. There's Brekke-Miesner, the aforementioned blog author and Oakland Tech teacher who, in the film, passes out shirts emblazoned with "Respect Our City" to be worn at the fair. City council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney plays a role as well, representing how difficult it is for the city to manage something with such great potential and yet so many potentially dangerous consequences — to welcome newcomers and development, while also caring for its longtime residents.
In the film, these voices are placed into indirect dialogue, with no one privileged over the other. In that sense, the documentary is pleasingly lateral — as perspectives of the same moment layer atop one another, forming a nuanced and varied contextualization. And as the night wears on, groups intersect in captivating collisions that serve as analogies for Oakland's broader predicament. At the climax of the film, a group of anarchists lamenting the police killing of a young Oakland man named Alan Blueford angrily chant their way through the official First Friday moment of silence for Kiante Campbell, while McElhaney desperately — and futilely — attempts to hush them.
Eaton and Furloni designed the film as a collision of voices in hopes that it would spark discussion. "Especially in the Bay Area, do we not have very set viewpoints on how we feel about police killings, or how we feel about Black-on-Black crime, or how we feel about gentrification?" asked Eaton. "We don't want a film that preaches to the choir, we want a film that will help elevate the dialogue."
First Friday will screen at the New Parkway (474 24th St., Oakland) on November 20 and 21, and on KQED TV on November 22, but the directors also plan to have screenings all over Oakland at various theaters and community centers and will follow each with a discussion. Eventually, they plan to tour the film nationally. "These problems that we're facing in Oakland are not unique to Oakland," said Eaton. "Basically, any city that's going through this urbanization process is facing a lot of these growing pains, so that's why it's even more important to have a film that doesn't feel polemic, that does spark dialogue."