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'Messwood': A tale of two Milwaukee-area schools creating one football family

Jalen Phillips
Still from "Messwood"

The annual Milwaukee Film Festival kicks off today, and the Cream City Cinema program highlights some of the best new work from Milwaukee-area filmmakers. The new documentary “Messwood” focuses on a local high school football team.

Declining participation at Milwaukee’s Messmer High School, which is predominantly Black, and Shorewood High School, which has a predominantly white student population - led the schools to join forces to create a football team back in 2001.

Filmmakers Brad Lichtenstein and Emily Kuester followed the 2019 Messwood team for the film. Outside of the drama of games and practices, the documentary centers on the teenage athletes who are trying to make sense of their adolescence and the perceived and real racial issues in southeast Wisconsin.

Lichenstein and Kuester explain that they originally intended to make a film about Shorewood High School's controversy over the play, "To Kill A Mocking Bird." However, after it became clear that Shorewood wouldn't offer full access to the school, the filmmakers decided to pivot to a story about the school's football team.

"We started asking for access to Messmer and to the football team and that process went really well. Eventually, we were able to have access and to tell the story that became the film 'Messwood,' which frankly, I think is probably a much better film than the other one would have been," says Lichtenstein.

An important aspect of Messmer's and Shorewood's joint program is that it was often pointed out as an example of "racial harmony" by the community, but the team itself doesn't dwell on that description.

Coach Antoine Davis, who leads Messwood, is bit of an iconoclast, says Lichenstein. He says it makes him a really compelling person to watch in the movie.

In many ways, he says Kuester and him were lucky to be making a movie about a man who really doesn't fit anybody's preconceived notions or stereotypes.

"Coach Davis has a much more kind of interesting take on race, which is that he's trying to provide a safe space, where race is not the first and foremost issue at play when it comes to the kids, who obviously are crossing lots of different boundaries and worlds," says Lichtenstein.

Kuester adds the experience of seeing what the youth were able to do says a lot about the power of young people. There's also points in the film where you really see and hear people admit that it's adults that are having a hard time having conversations about race, she continues.

Despite the film's more serious tone, Kuester says they where able to catch moments of goofiness and fun from the players because they weren't hyper fixated on making sure race was always the topic at hand.

"I was genuinely excited about everything. It is my directorial debut. It was really my first experience having creative control on a future project, but I was also really excited about being able to work with young people. Especially in the film industry, I'm usually like the youngest in the room," says Kuester.

Both filmmakers hope that "Messwood" can help start a different kind of conversation for audiences.

Kuester notes that there's already been a lot of conversation around race specifically in Milwaukee, and she thinks that people can learn to listen and respect young people after watching the documentary.

"I think that there's so much we can learn from these players and these young people who are, you know, living in the city and experiencing so much and still overcoming so much and coming together and have just this really nuanced understanding of what it means to live in Milwaukee and to grow up in the city right now. So I hope people, you know, learn to respect and listen," says Kuester.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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