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Review: ‘Romeo Is Bleeding,’ and Shakespeare Is Relevant

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Donté Clark in the documentary “Romeo Is Bleeding.”

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Rajiv Smith-Mahabir/The Film Collaborative

“This ain’t got nothing to do with my life,” Donté Clark recalled thinking when, at 15, he picked up “Romeo and Juliet.” At 22, after years of seeing gang warfare and murder on the streets of his hometown, Richmond, Calif., he changed his mind. “That is our story,” he now says of the play. “It’s just told in Verona. In a different language, a different time period.”

Mr. Clark is part of RAW Talent, a group of young people who write and perform poetry. The members decided to stage their own team-written script loosely adapted from “Romeo and Juliet,” and Jason Zeldes, the director of this documentary, “Romeo Is Bleeding,” followed along to learn about their lives and chart their progress (a plan similar to that of several films, including “Shakespeare High” and “The Hobart Shakespeareans”).

Mr. Zeldes, who with Kevin Klauber also edited the documentary, uses fast cuts, varied camera angles and a patchwork of scenes to take in the varied perspectives of life in Richmond. The filmmakers walk with residents, ride with police officers and hear stories of young men who’ve been killed.

This free-flowing style mimics the hip-hop and jazz-inflected rhythms of the student-poets. But it comes at a price; the portraits drawn of these young people frequently feel half-finished. As soon as a story or a profile turns compelling, the movie switches to another topic.

For long stretches, “Romeo Is Bleeding” jettisons talk of Shakespeare altogether, though the real center of the film is, as it should be, the program members. They stay passionate despite discouraging circumstances. In Mr. Clark’s case, he had few options. When asked to join the group, he said, “It was either that or the streets, so I write poetry.”

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