So as to not bury the lead: Director Clay Tweel’s Out of Omaha is inspired, insightful filmmaking that patiently provides a platform for those denied everything, including a soapbox. The fierce urgency of the first half hour lays bare the truth of Omaha’s negligence towards its black community before giving way to a quiet, mournful descent into lives like promising, beautiful blossoms frozen on a vine.
We live in a place content to swagger and boast like a city but cower into folksy township when it comes to confronting racism and segregation. With the help of Wayne Brown, the Vice President of Programs for the Urban League of Nebraska, and some historical footage, it doesn’t take long to establish that there are “two Omahas.” Tweel focuses on the one that doesn’t get put on travel brochures.
Primarily following Darcell Trotter, and also his twin brother Darrell, over the course of eight years, Out of Omaha is the very best kind of documentary: the kind that knows when to get out of its own way. Tweel lets the Trotters speak truth about their existence, from basic frustrations about money to how being on the wrong couch one night can ruin your entire life. Each time Darcell swims from the murky depths of his neglected environment towards the light shimmering above, you pray he will break the water and gulp long, deep breaths of freedom. The reality is closer to drowning on dry land.
The brothers are surrounded by guns and gangs. So is everyone within the invisible chalk lines drawn around the northern part of this city. The Trotters’ experiences are singular and communal, specific and symbolic. Out of Omaha doesn’t put a bow on things, mince words, or offer concrete solutions. It just dares everyone to look where most choose not to peek.
Out of Omaha is not just for Nebraskans. Just about every city has its North Omaha, that part of town mentally cordoned off by the ruling white upper class who decide which kids are worth saving. Maybe the best part of the film is that we see how fragile and almost silly some of the legitimately well-intended help that is offered can be. How can you go to class if you’re arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of whether your tuition is paid?
Tweel chose to spend the vast majority of the film letting his subjects speak about personal issues, which is commendable. However, the opening and closing is enough to make one long for a full analysis of the origins and pernicious effects of continued systemic racism in Omaha. Last year, a somewhat spiritually similar film, Minding the Gap, made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Considering that, with all sincerity, Out of Omaha belongs in that conversation this year.
It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and one of the more important local films I’ve ever had the opportunity to review. I urge you to head to Aksarben Cinema to see it (running Aug 29 to Sep 5) on the big screen, or catch it on Starz and other streaming services on or after Sep 9. No matter where you live, this one will hit home.
Grade = A