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Documentary on gentrification loses sight of the big picture

"Flag Wars" tackles a hugely compelling subject for anyone living in or near an urban area: the clash between an aging, low-income neighborhood population and an influx of yuppie gentrifiers. That this documentary zooms in on the collision between African-American homeowners and gay, white interlopers in Columbus, Ohio, makes the potential for insights into barriers of class, race, and sexuality immense.

The film's a double disappointment, then: too cinema-verite to provide the context viewers need, and too focused on a few colorful individuals at the expense of the larger communities. You come out shaken by a handful of piquant details but wondering where the big picture went.

Worth seeing? Certainly. The changes roiling American cities, as upper-middle-class couples snap up and renovate old housing stock in declining neighborhoods, deserves to be put on the table and examined as openly as possible. What happens when rising real estate values force the original inhabitants out of the market? Can local improvements benefit one population at the expense of another? Who does a neighborhood belong to anyhow? To the people who live there, obviously, but "Flag Wars" is aware that it's not that simple.

The film tries to capture the unspoken tug-of-war for Columbus's Near East Side and succeeds reasonably well before it gets sidetracked. The neighborhood has been recently designated a historic district by the city and renamed "Olde Towne" by folks like Nina Masseria, a lesbian realtor devoted to turning the district into a gay enclave. Business is booming, and renovations are underway on every corner.

To the African-Americans who have lived in the Near East Side for generations, this is curious at best and disruptive at worst. Old home-movie footage from the 1950s shows the area as comfortably middle-class, but urban blight has extended to the individual properties. Crime is up, porches are falling down, and the old ladies chuckle incredulously about all the new homeowners "who ain't got no wives."

"Flag Wars" seems heavily stacked against the newcomers, especially in early scenes in which Masseria sneers at the tacky taste of the old Near East Siders and wonders why "they haven't given up their hold on the neighborhood." She clearly thinks the turnover is a fait accompli, but we begin to understand the gay community's need for a safe harbor when we witness virulent protesters at a Gay Pride parade ("Got AIDS yet?" reads a T-shirt). We also get a glimpse of a local Ku Klux Klan rally: the Olde Towners aren't the only victims of persecution on the block.

On the other side are longtime residents like Chief Shango Baba Olugbala, a middle-aged artist who wants to keep his home the way it is, up to and including the hand-carved Yoruba sign over his front door. (The film's title has vaguely to do with this insignia symbolically clashing with the newcomers' rainbow flags.) Since this violates the new zoning rules, he finds himself in Environmental Court entangled by baffling red tape. Chief Shango is a character, no two ways about it, but he's also a thoughtful commentator on what's happening, and when he refers to gentrification as "ethnic cleansing," he cogently backs up the statement.

Unfortunately, "Flag Wars" increasingly focuses on Linda Mitchell, a likable but hopelessly alcoholic screw-up who inherited a decaying mansion from her parents and finds herself in court over the abandoned cars on her property. Judge Richard C. Pfeiffer at first seems the very model of hard-hearted bureaucracy, grilling the trembling woman days after she gets out of the hospital; he seems more humane later in the film and even shares a case of the courtroom giggles with Mitchell.

By then, the larger issues surrounding gentrification have fallen away as directors Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras chase this moving but unrepresentative narrative thread. "Flag Wars" begins with voices from all sides and eventually comes down to one, Mitchell's. It's an interesting, even tragic voice, but in this film it's the wrong one.

Ty Burr can be reached at

Flag Wars

Directed by: Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras

At: Coolidge Corner Theatre

Running time: 86 minutes

Unrated (adult language)


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