Bullets in the Hood – Brooklyn Filmmakers Take a Stand
by Bernadette Houston
Sundance Film Festival award winners Daniel Howard and Terrence Fisher
They were the youngest ever to win an award at Sundance film festival. Two New York City teenagers from Brooklyn’s projects decided they were going to make their voices heard about gun violence. This is their story.
It is a hot, hazy summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The air is particularly dense in the stairwell where Timothy Stansbury was shot and killed back in January of 2004. The concrete walls and ground are covered with tributes to Timothy, including “R.I.P. Young Self” and “Tim, we love you boy.” Three large, faded black X’s mark the stairs leading to the rooftop door. Terrence indicates that he marked the spots where he, Timothy, and another friend stood when Timothy was shot. Terrence describes the evening he saw his best friend take a fatal shot just feet in front of him. He has recounted that evening many times now, but it still doesn’t become any easier for him to accept. Headed back to a party after grabbing a CD at Terrence’s, Timothy reached the landing a couple of feet away from the rooftop access door when the door swung open from the outside and Terrence heard what sounded like a firecracker. The three tumbled backwards, down two flights of stairs. It took Terrence several moments to realize what had just happened, briefly thinking that he himself had been shot. “I didn’t know until I put it together,” Terrence says, “Timmy was screaming and there was blood.” Timothy died shortly after.
Losing friends to gun violence is all too familiar for 20 year-old Terrence Fisher. Eight of his friends have been killed by guns in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood, including Timothy. For Daniel Howard, 19, gun violence is not uncommon on his block in Brooklyn either. Daniel has had three of his friends die by gun violence and his family history is riddled with drug abuse, poverty, and violence. It is a cycle that is painfully customary in Brooklyn’s projects and one that so many fall prey to at a very early age.
In this case, however, Timothy’s death was particularly unusual and disturbing. Timothy was not caught in gang crossfire. He had been shot by a police officer patrolling the rooftop, in what a Grand Jury would later deem a tragic accident, acquitting the officer of all charges. The surrounding community was outraged by the incident and there was a tremendous impulse to retaliate.
Ironically, at the time of Timothy’s death, Terrence and Daniel were producing a documentary on gun violence together. Roughly six months before Timothy’s death, Terrence’s older brother had been shot and almost died. Fortunately, he survived, but that, combined with the loss of several other friends, compelled Terrence to do something. At the time of his brother’s shooting, Terrence had been involved with PRO-TV, a youth media arts-training program in New York City, provided through the nonprofit organization, DCTV (Downtown Community Television Center). It is at DCTV that Terrence and Daniel met and joined forces on the gun violence project.
Timothy’s death escalated the significance of the project considerably. Residents of the neighborhood were outraged that an innocent teen was killed by a police officer. “People in the community were ready to lash out,” Terrence recounts, “but I said nah son, that’s what they want us to do. Instead, I’m gonna go get my camera and we’re going to talk to the camera and tell the camera how we feel.”
Despite Terrence’s grief and anger, he and Daniel documented the days following Timothy’s death. The intense hours make up the documentary, Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story. Two full years in the making, the twenty-two minute documentary not only details Timothy’s untimely death, but makes a compelling statement about gun violence and community. Emotional scenes of Timothy’s mother grieving, angry residents confronting Mayor Bloomberg upon his visit after the shooting, and peaceful demonstrations by community members, all lend to the poignancy of the film.
The most compelling element about the film is the way in which the community came together productively, not destructively, and this is what Terrence and Daniel stress most about the film’s purpose. “This whole cycle, we need to break,” Daniel urges, “we need to rise above it.” Rising above generations of poverty, drug abuse and violence is not easy. Daniel recognizes that life in the projects can harden you: “You’re angry, but this is how it is in the hood.”
Media portrayal of young Blacks, accessibility of guns and drugs, limited access to opportunities, and poverty – all work as barriers holding people down. However, Terrence and Daniel are trying to change that with the documentary and trying to emphasize that there is a way to break the vicious cycle that consumes so many. “I’m not about what you see on T.V.” Daniel says, speaking of stereotypes reinforced by much of the media. “We need to show the world that we are not about killing each other,” he continues, “We’re actually doing something, we’re documentary filmmakers… we’re not just sitting here, we’re not just standing on the block.” Terrence agrees unreservedly, adding, “We need to tell people what’s going on… we’ve got to realize what we’re doing.”
The documentary certainly serves as a voice and vehicle for empowerment, so much so that once it was released, recognition poured in, with the film being selected for a number of film festivals nationwide. At the end of 2004, Terrence and Daniel learned that Bullets in the Hood had been nominated in the Short Documentary category at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and shortly after, their documentary won the Special Jury Recognition Award.
When asked about Sundance, Daniel and Terrence’s excitement becomes immediately evident. Terrence proudly states that they were the youngest filmmakers ever to win recognition at Sundance. Traveling to Park City, Utah, for the festival, Daniel and Terrence mingled with celebrities, including Vivica Fox. However, the most amazing part of being at Sundance for the pair was standing in line and having other people, celebrities included, point to Daniel and Terrence, saying “Those guys did Bullets in the Hood!” That recognition was more than the two ever expected when they undertook producing and directing the documentary. Having come from the projects in Brooklyn, neither Terrence nor Daniel ever expected they would be so widely recognized at such a prestigious film festival, all before they were even 20.
The reception of their documentary provided inconceivable opportunity and exposure for Daniel and Terrence. Daniel received a full-ride scholarship to Claflin University in South Carolina as well as a summer internship at NBC for the entirety of his undergraduate career, working on shows like “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Terrence’s lifelong passion for music keeps him busy as a DJ and producer for underground hip-hop labels and he is eager to become more involved in the production of music and music videos. Terrence will also be working toward the completion of his GED this fall. Both continue to receive recognition for Bullets in the Hood as well as other individual projects and this only seems to be the beginning of their story.
Despite the recognition and opportunities emerging from their film, neither one has lost sight of the tragedy that brought them where they are today. Terrence only briefly attended Sundance, returning home for the vigil held in Timothy’s memory one year after his death. The vigil is held on the 24th day of every month and Terrence never misses it.
Just down the block from where Terrence lives is one of the tribute murals featured in the documentary. Murals cover the sides of buildings all over Brooklyn, painted in honor of individuals from the neighborhood who have been killed. The murals serve as a poignant reminder for the community, often featuring impressively painted images of those who died. “Stop the violence,” Terrence implores, to which Daniel adds, “You can do so much more… something better” and they are doing just that – breaking down the ominous cycle of violence and tragedy through self-expression and with a sense of community.