“Pahokee,” the debut feature film by directors Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan which premiered at Sundance, is set in the small town of Pahokee, Florida, one of the poorest towns in the Sunshine State.
The documentary follows four students, Na’Kerria Nelson, Jocabed Martinez, Junior Walker and BJ Crawford, as they embark on their senior year of high school. The teens navigate the ups and downs of that pivotal moment before graduation. Economic, familial, academic and athletic pressures weigh on their shoulders as they all look to make their city proud.
Pahokee residents have faced immense financial struggle over the last several years. It is one of the poorest towns in Palm Beach County, which is also home to some of the most affluent communities in Florida. With Pahokee’s water issues and limited job opportunities, sports is leveraged as a community morale booster and track to success.
Residents see football as a way out for its rising stars. In 2014, five former Blue Devils — the local football team — were in the NFL, the second most from any high school in the country at that time. While the school-to-professional football pipeline is pumping, the subjects in “Pahokee” look to expand their town’s reputation beyond sports.
NBCBLK had an opportunity to interview all four subjects about what Pahokee means to them and what they’re doing now.
Martinez is the bookworm of the group, but it wasn’t an easy road for her growing up. After seeing how hard her parents worked in their family taco shop, the daughter of Mexican immigrants went from not prioritizing school to making it her top concern.
“I need to contribute,” she said in tears in the documentary, as she worked on her college personal essay. “As much as they’ve helped me, I need to help them out.”
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That hard work paid off. Martinez won Miss International Baccalaureate at school and became her class salutatorian.
Now, Martinez is at the University of Florida, majoring in English with two minors. Before she was stressed about college applications, but now she’s fully immersing herself in campus life.
“I’m getting involved around school,” she told NBCBLK. “I recently joined a sorority; it's something that I would have never imagined myself being a part of. University life is so different from what Pahokee has to offer, so I'm just kind of taking it all in.”
Nelson oozes enthusiasm in the documentary. An active cheerleader with a lot of friends, Nelson campaigns to be Miss Pahokee High School in the documentary. She tries to keep a upbeat attitude while juggling her job and applying for college to be a nurse. Nelson shares her innermost thoughts via self-recorded videos. “I’ll get through it,” she said. “I’ll keep pushing, as always.”
Currently, Nelson is at a new community college for sonography while working a job. She describes Pahokee as a city as one that's “all part of a test.” “Like you gotta be tough, if you're not tough, you won't survive.”
In the documentary, Crawford is looking to take his athletic talents beyond high school. As the Blue Devils’ co-captain, he tackles football and his education. With the support system of his family, Crawford has been thinking about colleges that provide not only great football programs but also good sports medicine programs.
After graduation, Crawford pivoted from sports medicine to accounting at Florida A&M University.
“I have like a hundred people in my graduating class, but now I may have like a 150 people in a classroom,” he said. “Being an accounting major and now I'm trying to switch into marketing. It’s a big deal with FAMU because business is our marquee major at our school.”
He hopes that viewers get a more positive point of view of his town — beyond sports. “I want people to know that even though football is a marquee sport or a marquee way out, it's not the only way," he told NBCBLK. "It's been a long time since we had a voice in a right away instead of a negative.”
In "Pahokee," Walker juggles parenting, school and leading the marching band drum line to the best of his abilities. As the father to a year-old girl, he has aspirations to provide above and beyond for her.
“That’s my No. 1 girl,” he said in the documentary. “I’ma give her everything she wants. Watch, when I start getting money, I'ma give her everything she want.”
At Sundance, Walker expressed plans to come back to next year’s festival. For now, he is trying to get better at the life balancing act especially since his family has gotten larger since the documentary.
“Right now I'm a father of two, doing my best to take care of them," he told NBCBLK. "I play the drums at church every Sunday. And I have two jobs, in South Bay. And also once I get back from here, I'm going to sign myself up for state college and study for criminal justice.”