Documentary about Denver gangs and police wins Denver International Film Festival award

If film festival audiences could vote in the Denver elections, Terrance Roberts would have a great chance to become Denver’s next mayor. Or perhaps filmmaker Julian Rubenstein would get elected, based on the positive response to his documentary, THE HOLLY, about Roberts complicated history with Denver’s gangs and law enforcement.

In November, THE HOLLY sold out two screenings during the Denver International Film Festival, showing first at the Denver Botanic Gardens and again at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The film earned standing ovations from both audiences and the 2022 festival’s Audience Award.

Earlier this year, it won the Audience Choice for Best Documentary at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival and the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Santa Fe International Film Festival 2022. Also selected for other film festivals outside of Colorado, the film has a companion book that was published in May 2021. “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood Hardcover,” written by Rubinstein, has 4.3 out of 5 stars from 158 ratings and has been recognized as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, 2022 Colorado Book Award winner for General Nonfiction, and 2022 High Plains Book Award winner for Creative Nonfiction.

“I grew up in what has been described as ‘Invisible Denver,’ the community of North East Park Hill. I could have never guessed I would have my life story be told, and we would sell out theaters and win numerous awards. It’s all really surreal to me at the moment; I’m still processing everything,” Roberts said. “The support has been amazing and humbling.”

The documentary tells the story of Roberts’ activism and the repercussions from his 2013 shooting of gang member, who was paralyzed from the incident. Roberts, himself, is a former gang leader who served prison time, but returned home with a mission of developing the resources to keep young people out of gangs and end street violence. He founded a successful nonprofit, The Prodigal Son Initiative, and helped guide the redevelopment of one of Denver’s civil rights landmarks, Holly Square. But, as the redevelopment came fruition, he was confronted by Hasan “Munch” Jones, and saying that he feared for his life, shot him.

Rubinstein, who grew up in Denver, began looking into the case and said he found himself caught up in a world of gang members, activists, informants, cops, and developers uneasily coexisting in a rapidly gentrifying community. That compelled him to write the book and make the documentary.  His first book, “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber,” was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. He is a writer for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and others, as well as a visiting of the Practice in Documentary Journalism at the University of Denver.

Roberts also felt that it was time to tell the story “about the struggles our youth in Denver have to endure. There are worse cities, of course, but Denver is no playground for these children in the streets, our unhoused neighbors, or anyone in a vulnerable position. It’s expensive here, we get freezing cold temperatures, and it can be a dangerous place. We had 96 homicides last year alone, mostly young people of color, for various reasons, all poverty related.”

“Hopefully now we can begin to move past this political denial of these facts (unless there’s a grant involved to “solve” it), and focus more on proper policing and community relations, youth violence reduction, housing our unhoused neighbors, etc.,” he added.

The film production team is working on getting The Holly on a national platform by February for Black History Month. No distribution deals have been closed yet.

As for Roberts, he no longer heads The Prodigal Son Initiative, which was renamed Impact Empowerment Group. The nonprofit has a new staff and its mission is “Strengthening and building community by equipping and empowering youth and their families with the skills and tools they need to succeed through economic development.”

Roberts works as a residential and commercial property inspector, and he said, “The last contract I recently completed I performed Educational Assessment and Safe Exterior Door evaluations at many DPS schools like McGlone Elementary, MLK Middle, East High, and Lincoln High schools.”

He still attends activities to support the community around Holly Square. Through Fontline Party for Revolutionary Action (FPRA) that he founded, he is organizing events and seeking justice for youth like Alexis Mendez-Perez, “shot in his back by a Colorado Correctional Officer in Montbello in 2019, because he and his friends partied in a vacant house next to his.”

Roberts is also a candidate for the Denver mayor election in April 2023. He said the timing of the book and film release so close to the election was not planned, and that they were originally scheduled to come out months to a couple years earlier.

“However it falls together, or not, with my campaign and the election date (4/4/2023) is out of my control. Once I decided to run for office, I had no idea about the timeline of things, it’s taken years for this project to drop, and some things have taken only weeks or months lately now that it’s out and gaining momentum. I had to make sure my campaign got off of the ground professionally and correctly despite whatever happened with the book or film,” he explained.

“Now I am more ready than ever to tackle whatever issues or politics that have been holding up progress for us to address getting resources to people in Denver who need them. I am ready to have the much needed conversations this city needs to have to move forward. Just like everyone who’s watching, I’m also wondering what else GOD has in store for me; it’s been an interesting and much appreciated journey.”