Samuel George/Bertelsmann Foundation
A scene from the film 'Go-Go City.' A go-go truck often showed up to protests this summer.
Samuel George/Bertelsmann Foundation
Samuel George, a 36-year-old filmmaker who's originally from Philadelphia, has an unlikely connection to go-go music.
He says it all started back in 2013 with Gregory "Sugar Bear" Elliot, the lead man of Experience Unlimited, famous for the immortal hit "Da Butt." George, who'd only been in the District for a few years, discovered that the go-go legend played every Wednesday night at The Meeting Place, a small basement bar near Farragut Square.
"I just started going and bringing different people," says George. "Every week, I would show up, and finally, Sugar Bear came over and said, 'Hey, buddy, who are you?'
George mentioned that he played guitar, typically in rock bands, and Sugar Bear soon invited him to play with the band for a song or two during one of their sets. Through Sugar Bear, he met other go-go artists and learned the ins and outs of the culture behind D.C.'s official music.
"So the first time I ever played in a go-go band, it was with these incredible go-go musicians, and I don't think many people get a shot at that," George says. "It sounds silly to say, but [go-go] was the thing that helped me really feel like I belonged in D.C., that D.C. wasn't just this transient place."
Chuck Brown is the Godfather of go-go, of course, but there are others who belong in what George calls the "Mount Rushmore of go-go:" EU's Sugar Bear; Trouble Funk's Big Tony; Backyard Band's Anwan "Big G" Glover; conga player Ricky "Rocksteady" Brown; and Sweet Cherie of Bela Dona.
All of these foundational artists are featured in George's new documentary, Go-Go City: Displacement & Protest in Washington, DC, which premieres virtually Wednesday at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with local activists, scholars, and musicians who appear in the film. George shot and directed the 50-minute film for the Bertelsmann Foundation (the U.S. arm of the nonpartisan German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung, which focuses on global issues), where he's an analyst and filmmaker. Arlington-based freelancer Jeff Cook served as editor.
The film documents the intersection of go-go and the protests over racial justice that have proliferated across the city for the better part of 2020. But it didn't start out that way.
Initially, George set out to make a film about locals who have advocated for go-go culture amid D.C.'s rampant gentrification. That was in January, before the pandemic started, before George Floyd's murder gripped the world, and before months of Black Lives Matter protests ricocheted across the Washington region.
George paused production as COVID-19 cases climbed, but when he witnessed the Long Live GoGo float showing up to just about every demonstration this summer, he decided to continue filming — with a greater focus on the current moment.
Displacement is still a primary focus of the film, which documents the final days of the famous H Street fried fish joint Horace & Dickies and last year's Don't Mute DC rallies, and interweaves archival footage of the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. One particularly striking scene shows burning buildings during the 1968 riots spliced with current footage of those same streets lined with luxury apartments and young professionals exercising and walking their dogs.
"They call it gentrification. I call it cultural genocide," Richard "Dickie" Shannon, of Horace & Dickie's, says in the film.
The documentary also depicts this past summer's agita as National Guard troops swooped in and protestors risked contracting coronavirus by gathering in large crowds, clashing with police, and dancing to their hometown music.
"Placement and displacement is a recurring motif for Black people all over the world. We're always looking for a home," says author and scholar Natalie Hopkinson in one of the documentary's final scenes. "One of the places is in our music and in our culture and in our rituals. So, whatever else might be happening, you're home in that moment. You're right where you should be."
The irony isn't lost on George — that he's a young white man and relative newcomer to the District who's interviewing Black, native Washingtonians about gentrification. But George says he's often been an outsider highlighting communities that want their stories told. His previous work has focused on conflicts and social change in Latin America, India, and Turkey, as well as political and racial tensions in Florida and West Virginia. With the travel restrictions in place during the pandemic, George says this was a perfect opportunity to provide a platform for storytelling where he lives.
"People want their story told the right way," he says. "That's why it's so important to tell the story honestly and so important to be clear about what you're trying to do. And in my case, what I try to be clear about, and what I try to do with the film is not say, 'I'm telling a story.' Rather, I'm trying to give people the space to tell their story, and I try to be a conduit."
After Wednesday's screening, DC Shorts International Film Festival will co-host a panel discussion featuring go-go artist Rocksteady; protestor Terrence Odom; anthropologist Sabiyha Prince; DC Shorts Executive Director Peter Morgan; and At-Large D.C. Councilmember Robert White. The documentary itself won't live online just yet, but George says there will likely be a few more public screenings over the next few months.
Ultimately, George wants D.C. residents, new and old, to gain a unique perspective on the city's cascade of social and economic changes.
"On the one hand, I hope that the people in the communities that are in the film see themselves in it," he says. "But I also hope some of the young people, and the gentrifiers, and people that, like me, moved in within the last 10 years, can see this and start to see a Washington that they might not have realized [existed]."
Go-Go City: Displacement & Protest in Washington, DC premieres virtually at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Talkback to follow. FREE.