LAFF 2017: ‘Skid Row Marathon’ ✮✮✮✮✮

If you worked in downtown Los Angeles, you’ll be familiar with the homeless. Things might be different, but the two times I worked downtown secure parking was important. If you parked in an outdoor uncovered parking lot you bought a steering wheel lock and cleared everything from sight. If you could afford indoor covered parking, you minimized your time walking to your car when evening fell.

That’s what makes a single man jogging down the streets of downtown Los Angeles, passing by the tents, cardboard boxes and blanketed bundles that shelter the homeless a bit shocking. The documentary “Skid Row Marathon” asks Los Angelenos to take another look at the homeless but doesn’t ask for simple sympathy. Instead this documentary shows us addicts finding a healthy addiction to help themselves.

“Skid Row Marathon,”  won the LA Muse Documentary and the Audience Award (documentary) at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival. Directed by Mark Hayes, “Skid Row Marathon”  follows Craig Mitchell,  a criminal judge, over a four-year period when he forms  a running club for men and women recovering from addiction at the Midnight Mission. If you’re an athlete, you might be bothered by what seems to be tension in his raised shoulders as he runs, but that will be explained soon enough.

In court, he sentences offenders to prison, sometimes life sentences. He feels not “weighed down to what you’re committing another human being to.” When one of the men he sentences to jail after his release asks the judge to visit him at the Midnight Mission–just a city block away, the judges does and decides to share his love of running. He promises each participant a free trip to an international marathon.

One of the first to join was David Askew who confesses, “At my lowest point, I was living there,” pointing to a drainage pipe hole under a bridge along the LA River. He was living with rats and pigeons. “That’s what alcohol, drugs will do to you.”

Alcohol and drugs also destroyed the musical aspirations of Ben Shirley who came to Los Angeles to play bass guitar with a heavy metal band. The much tattooed man ballooned up to 300 lbs.

Drugs weren’t the problem that put Rafael Cabrera in jail. He spent most of his adult life in incarcerated after murdering a man as part of his gang activities. Due to parole restrictions, Rafael isn’t able to join the others when they make their first international marathon run in Ghana.

As the group continues and grows, we meet two new members: Mody Diop and  Rebecca Hayes. Rebecca Hayes was living on the streets of Seattle with her son before moving to Los Angeles. Mody was originally from Senegal and attending college on the East Coast before he became addicted to drugs.

Director Mark Hayes and producer Gabrielle Hayes, a husband and wife team got up as early as 4:30 a.m. and running 5-7 miles each time with the marathoners. What they have produced is a tear-inducing, hopeful movie that asks us to look at the homeless people at a different angle.  As the judge says, “One horrendous act does not define a person in his entirety” and that’s also true for those who relapse as one of the men does because he is “captive to his addiction.” The judge leaves the door open but is clear that in order to save addicts and gang bangers, they have to take the first step and walk the straight and narrow. “Skid Row Marathon” made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival (June 2017).

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