Milwaukee is known for a lot of things but for Black residents, it’s mostly staggering, negative statistics.
From the largest achievement gap between white and Black students, to incarceration and poverty rates, and of course the city’s segregation — simply living in Milwaukee presents significant challenges for Black people.
Milwaukee native Tyshun Wardlaw’s new documentary Growing Up Milwaukee follows Tiana Gee, Brandon Haney and Marquell Jenkins — three Black teens who struggle daily while coming of age in the heart of the city. The film also features community leaders and local organizations working to improve the lives of young Black Milwaukeeans and break the negative cycles so many find themselves in.
“I set out to be able to tell the stories behind those statistics, but I also wanted to do it from the youth perspective because I know that the youth are our future,” Wardlaw says.
Wardlaw began working on this film in 2017 and from the beginning, she wanted to bring stories from Milwaukee to a national scale. She recently completed a deal to distribute the film through HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max.
“I had no doubt in my mind that what I wanted to tell — I didn’t know exactly how it was going to turn out, who was going to be in it, but I knew that it was important to get Milwaukee, what was happening in our city on a national level and get behind those stories,” she explains.
Those stories are told mainly through the three teens followed throughout the documentary. Tiana is a mother who had a child at the age of 14 and is aging out of Milwaukee’s group home system, Brandon is recently released from being incarcerated and Marquell deals with abuse and trauma in his single-parent household.
Despite the tragedy captured in the film, Wardlaw says the point of the film is to show people that change can still be made.
“It was my initial idea as well, especially in the editing process, was to come to an audience where they could say, you know, all hope isn’t lost,” she says. “Milwaukee is a lot of things as far as statistics, but we’re not hopeless.”
For her, Wardlaw hopes that the film can be a call to action because she says it’s going to take everyone getting involved to start changing the statistics coming out of Milwaukee.
“Don’t get me wrong, funding and resources definitely count and the give opportunities for things to grow, but actually coming up with solutions to the problem and not to say we’re not doing that, but I think even in legislation like, continuously, we know these problems exist but how can we be a solution to it,” she says.
Wardlaw acknowledges it is going to take time to fix these deep seeded issues and that her film is not meant to be a final solution but a spark for change.
“I do hope that there is a sense of urgency to continue working on things that people have already been doing and or starting to implement a new plan, a new solution to some of these same existing problems that we’ve had for many years,” she says.
Growing Up Milwaukee can be streamed online through HBO Max or through Milwaukee Film's Black History Month program from Feb. 22-28.