Shirley’s Kids, Directed by Michael Paulucci
Shirley’s Kids documents the aftermath of violence in an American metropolis, remembering the deaths and celebrating the lives of four young people through the words of their mother. Shirley Chambers was a mother of four in Chicago until gun violence in her city took all of her children. Their names are Carlos, LaToya, Jerome, and Ronnie, and through the loving remembrance of their mother, this film recalls their lives – and calls for an end to the violence.
Chambers gained nationwide media attention because of the extraordinary toll that gun violence has taken on her family. Her son Carlos was shot and killed by a classmate on his way home from school in 1995, when he was just 18 years old. In 2000, the same boy who shot Carlos was trying to shoot at someone else in the family’s apartment building when he mistakenly shot and killed Carlos’s sister, 15-year-old LaToya. Two months later, Chambers’ son Jerome, 23, was also shot and killed. And in 2013, while sitting in a car on Chicago’s West Side, her last surviving child, Ronnie, 33, was also shot to death.
The film utilises powerful cinematographic methods to sympathetically present a tragic reality of loss and violence. Fragments of newspaper headlines introduce the subject matter like pieces of a disjointed puzzle, forming meaningful phrases from disparate parts: ‘gunfire homicides’; ‘Chicago mother alone’; ‘grieving family’. Between these puzzle pieces appear beautiful images of a Chicago cityscape on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The combination of these images has the effect of situating a violent history within its cultural environs: as expressions of journalism, from which the public consumes the realities of gun violence – and within the cityscape itself. Chicago is eerily beautiful in these opening scenes. The city is frozen solid, and shots of the shore reveal no life, not even the movement of the water. In one instance a train traverses a bridge that crosses the Chicago river; smoke rises from the tops of buildings and an American flag waves in the wind, but otherwise Chicago is silent. These images, along with the whole work, are filmed entirely in grey. It is as if the city itself is in mourning.
The film’s most recurring image, however, is a plain grey flag with four black stars lined across its centre. Each star represents one of Shirley’s children, and its symbology guides the viewer’s understanding of the unfolding violence recounted by Shirley herself. As each child is killed, one more star appears on the flag. This gradual process of symbolic remembrance is excruciating, especially from the film’s perspective of hindsight. We begin by knowing the story’s ending, so that its gradual unfolding becomes charged with foreboding and disbelief. Each murder feels at once impossible and inevitable.
Along with the symbolic use of black stars and journalistic language to introduce and guide the presentation of this tragic narrative, director Michael Paulucci creates a certain depth to Shirley’s narration by re-enacting the joyful lives of her children. When Shirley talks about the strong familial relationships between siblings, the viewer finds herself among these children: Shirley speaks from her memory, and Paulucci re-creates it in physical space. Four children play together in a playground, chasing each other and laughing together. The effect is loving and sad, and the images are presented with a bright greyness accompanied with a wistful music (composed by Edgar Barroso). The children also appear in the cityscape that introduced the film: they hold hands and walk on a pier extending into the vast body of water at the edge of the city; they play in the snow.
These scenes bring to life the memory of Shirley’s children, and their deaths become more palpable to the removed viewer when the joys of their lives are juxtaposed so closely with the facts of their murders. Shirley’s Kids is an emotional documentary that uses art to communicate a celebration of life, a mourning of death, and a dedication to change that honours Shirley Chambers and the memory of her children. ■
Runtime: 10 minutes
Genre: Documentary, Short
Country: United States
Find out more
Find out more about this film and independent American filmmaker Michael Paulucci on the pages for Shirley’s Kids and Michael Paulucci in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as well as the website of Alrojo Films, Michael Paulucci’s Chicago-based production company.
This film is the 2015 recipient of the Atlas Award for Human Rights.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Shirley’s Kids’. Alrojo Films.