The topic hit home for director Keith McQuirter while visiting a correctional facility where "everyone in the population looked like me."
The issues affecting the Milwaukee neighborhood with the 53206 zip code would take a lifetime to explore; Keith McQuirter had 55 minutes.
“Where do I begin?” wondered the producer-director of documentary Milwaukee 53206, about the local zip code with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
A 2007 study by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee found that the black male incarceration rate of 62 percent represented a 336 percent increase in the number of felons living in the community with that zip code.
And since then the number of women being incarcerated is on the upswing, McQuirter said.
Behind these statistics are systemic problems like over-policing, mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws which have tragic consequences for families and the community.
Felons in the neighborhood cannot vote, sit on juries or be judged by their peers. Because they cannot find jobs, it’s hard “to pull themselves up” out of poverty, McQuirter said. And kids with absent parents are at risk at failing in school and “following them into the pipeline of the prison system.” All of that is just “a sliver of a sliver” of the problem, said McQuirter from his office in Brooklyn.
The film’s 2016 premiere was presented by Milwaukee Film, and it has since had 182 screenings in 21 states. It recently aired on PBS’ World Channel and will stream on worldchannel.org through July. The project was presented by the faith-based advocacy group Transform Films Inc. whose only directive was to “make a film about incarceration. It was so broad [an idea] it was daunting,”‘ McQuirter said.
His research led him to the UWM study and to meetings with Milwaukee nonprofit groups working in the re-entry and policy space, like the Benedict Center, Project Return and Wisdom, a statewide, grassroots, faith-based agency.
But the stories of the formerly incarcerated electrified McQuirter and led him to to focus on “relationships and missing people and how that affects the family’s psychology, emotionally and generationally.”
“The story I wanted to tell was of the missing person at the dinner table,” he said.
McQuirter also drew on his own personal experience as a black man. The topic became personal to him while visiting a correctional facility and seeing that “everyone in the population looked like me. Black, brown and young. It was at that moment it hit me. I felt sick. Because of my professional life I’m the only black man in the room. But when I went into the facility I was in the majority. It was surreal and eye-opening. Before that I knew the numbers. But that many black men in one room locked up really awakened in me [the desire] to say something, do something and be a part of this,” he said.