Courtesy of Charlene Carruthers

I had the pleasure of attending an early screening of The Funnel. Long-time community organizer Charlene Carruthers’ first foray in film directing, The Funnel is a window into the city’s evolution of community and housing.

As the film opens, we are greeted by Trina, a young woman who’s facing eviction from her apartment. After awaking in the middle of the night, she takes a moment to stare at her surroundings before wandering around her building. She crouches against her apartment walls, pulls out her notebook and begins to write. As Trina writes, she is lulled to sleep and receives vision-like dreams. 

Through these visions, the audience is teleported along with Trina to a 1940s kitchenette apartment her grandmother, Taylor, is living in. This is where we begin to understand the film’s title, originating from a passage in author Richard Wright’s short story, The One-Room Kitchenette. “The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit.” Kitchenettes were becoming increasingly common in the early 20th century; they were small dwelling units with limited appliances, often constructed from dividing existing apartments into smaller apartments. Due to racist housing policies, most Black residents who migrated to Chicago from the South were often forced to live in the most poorly constructed kitchenettes. 

We see how much has changed through the differences between Trina and Taylor’s apartments. Despite occupying the same space, Taylor’s apartment is cramped and suffocating in comparison to Trina’s bedroom and open hallways. As we see throughout the film, privacy is difficult for Taylor to maintain. She tries to hide her lover as she visits, but neighbors are nosy and can hear them through the walls. Taylor regularly discusses  needing more space to pursue being a writer. Going to the bathroom is a journey of traversing narrow hallways, avoiding long conversations, and standoffs between those in line to use the stall. 

This was the reality many Black people were forced to endure when looking for housing in Chicago during the Great Migration. It can be easy to read the history of kitchenettes and think there was no community or joy in those buildings, but I keep thinking back to the contrasts between the building’s past and present. Despite her housing conditions being worse, Taylor embodies warmth and extends kindness towards her neighbors. Even though Trina’s physical apartment is in better shape, loss and uncertainty fills the apartment with Trina only having her mother. Spirits seem to haunt her building, from portraits of Harold Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Taylor, both the characters and the viewer are reminded of the ancestors who have come before us and the slice of time we occupy.

I interviewed Charlene before the film’s screening and continued to reflect on the conversation to help process my viewing of the film. Charlene was inspired by writer Saidiya Hartman’s book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” which documented the intimate lives and politics of Black queer women in the early 1900s. In particular, the cramped livings of New York City’s and Philadelphia’s tenements and row houses is what necessitated the radical politics many of them practiced. Knowing that much of her family was forced to live in kitchenettes when they arrived in Chicago from Mississippi, Charlene wanted to create a film that explored and honored their experiences.

More specifically, Charlene wanted questions of home to be the underlying theme of the film. Even though the story in the film is fictional, she took care to craft elements in the film that are rooted in history and resonate with the audience. Through the film’s original score to the set designs, the apartment building itself became an actor, playing a character who has their own arc and history. To capture the setting and tone of the film, Charlene did thorough research on the history of kitchenette apartments, like reading through archives, visiting different locations, and more importantly, engaging with family members and other Black residents who once lived in kitchenettes.

In this sense, the constrained hallways, the sharing of bathrooms, and the lack of privacy are what forced residents to be in community. Funneling is what helped build connections and intimacy between characters. We see this through characters embracing each other and the inside jokes they tell amongst themselves. Even when neighbors get annoyed by Taylor, she chooses to respond with appreciation and kindness, and deep down, they acknowledge that love. This is particularly noteworthy since community is often not guaranteed for many Black trans and queer folks, which is why the film chooses to center them. 

Charlene wanted the community to be rooted in love and care—not in policing each other’s lives. This stems from Charlene’s experience in community organizing and understanding care is a practice. Even during the filming of The Funnel, Charlene embodied this practice by prioritizing crew members safety during the height of the pandemic and working to find a new filming location after the original was burned down.

Just as kitchenettes funneled tenants to occupy the same cramped spaces, the building in the movie provided a window between the 1940s and the present. From the vision Trina had, we the audience watch how the kitchenette went from being home for Black residents who would form community with each other to becoming empty and desolate in the present-day. Taylor and the rest of the community’s lives are embedded in the building, acting as a temporal funnel for Trina to witness through her visions. The casting of Cat Christmas as both Trina and her grandmother Taylor allowed us to understand the similarities between them, and how their experiences diverge. From both of their practices of writing, we see their similarities and wonder how the land itself shaped their personalities and wishes.

Due to the film’s short length, the audience is left wondering if Trina remains well. Maybe this was an intentional choice for us to experience Trina’s uncertainty of losing a community. Us Black Chicagoans know the violence of displacement continues unabated. From residents pushing for community benefits agreements to trying to stop private developers from building on former public housing land, the fight against the destruction of community in this city is an ongoing process. Considering the external narratives and stigmas placed on people living in the projects, the film says we must be allowed to tell our stories and affirm our experiences in all  of their nuance.

In the film, there was a touching moment between Trina and her mother, Ms. Denise. Sensing her daughter’s worries, Ms. Denise comforts and reminds her that they will continue to prosper. “They can’t get rid of us,” she says. 

“Like Bebe’s kids,” Trina reassures.

David is an affordable housing organizer with the CBA Coalition and astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. He last wrote about accessory dwelling units in 2020.

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