On a dark night in Boston, two brothers are shot. One dies, one lives. A mother reveals what’s left behind.
2016. 9 Minutes.
Cory Johnson and his half-brother Justin were talking around midnight outside their father’s house in Boston five years ago. Cory, 27, the father of two, had no reason to think he was in danger. Shots were fired out of the darkness, the shooter unknown. Cory dragged himself to a neighbor’s door and died there. Justin managed to get to the hospital and lived.
Cory’s mother Debra measures her life by that night. Before was worry. After is grief that threatens to consume her. Letting go of pain might mean letting go of Cory, which she can’t do. Reconciling that is her life struggle, like many survivors of violence.
The Johnsons are an African American family living in Roxbury, a largely black and Latino neighborhood in Boston, a city the Brookings Institution ranks worst in America in income inequality. Cory had been an honors student, and had no involvement in guns, gangs or violence until he became a victim. Debra finds it insulting that she has to explain that when she tells his story, as though there’s an implied responsibility for his own death because of who he was and where he lived.
Cory Not Promised was developed at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church’s Social Impact Center which helps people in the community recover from trauma. Filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan have done film work in Roxbury going back decades, including Accounts from the Life of George Wilkins and Eyes on the Prize. Pastor Liz Walker introduced them to Debra and dancer Wyatt Jackson. The film is the collaboration that resulted.
In the film, we are looking for a cinematic expression of the inexpressible. Among our references are Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Pina. This film is a short, so the ideas are compressed, more like a haiku than a tract.
Cory Not Promised is about grief and consolation, loss and solace, injustice and the randomness of fate. Our hope is that viewers can come to a deeper understanding of events that too often are pushed away as mere statistics. Gun violence is at once a community trauma and a deeply personal one, and recovery is slow, incremental, and accompanied by striking moments of pain and revelation.
In our careers making documentaries, we’ve sought ways to bring the audience deep into someone’s experience. Intimacy is one of the defining qualities we’re looking for. Another is empathy — between the people in the theater and the ones on screen.
We began the project that became Cory Not Promised in response to the relentless gun violence in our town. Shootings are either headlines or buried in the Metro section, depending on the neighborhood where they happen, how much blood is spilled and what else is going on that day. People are horrified or they shrug. The news moves on, but the people involved don’t. Psychologist Judith Herman, a neighbor, describes how traumatized people can feel “utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care that sustain life.”
One night a month, the Roxbury Presbyterian Church holds “Can We Talk” – an evening for people who have experienced trauma to share their feelings and try to cope with wounds that don’t heal. It’s not religious, anyone can speak, or not. Musicians and dancers perform in the moments in between. Debra Johnson often reads a poem or reports on her progress trying to get through something she knows she’ll never get over.
We think that solving problems of the city depends on empathy. Political solutions are embedded in personal experiences, and vice versa. We hope to make Debra, Justin and Cory’s story palpable for those who have been through similar loss, and for those who haven’t.
Debra says that taking part in this project has allowed her to confront things she had walled off, and brought her farther along toward recovery. An unexpected testament to what film can do.
Cory Not Promised is produced, directed, filmed and edited by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, an Oscar-nominated team whose work The Boston Globe calls “filmmaking at its finest.” Among their many critically acclaimed films are Troublesome Creek (Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, Prix Italia, Directors Guild nominee), So Much So Fast (Sundance nominee, IFFB Audience Award) and Raising Renee (Emmy nominee, IFFB Audience Award). Their documentaries and dramas have been released theatrically and broadcast around the world on premiere networks including HBO, PBS, BBC, ZDF and A&E. Ascher is author of The Filmmaker’s Handbook, a bestseller (“Seminal.” – The New York Times).
Debra Johnson was born in Trinidad and has lived in Boston since she was 12. She works for the power company in Boston as a Field Service Representative. Every weekend her extended family including children, grandchildren, sisters and parents descend on her house because of the central role she plays in her family.
Wyatt Jackson is an Emmy and Peabody Award winning artist who has been inspiring others through the art of dance for nearly two decades. He has danced in productions such as the Tony nominated Black and Blue and Body and Soul, and has taught contemporary dance at Boston Conservatory, Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival and many other institutions.
Composer Sheldon Mirowitz has scored many films for Ascher and Jordan, and created the scores for more than fifty film and TV projects, receiving three Emmy nominations for best music. Films include the Peabody Award winning mini-series “Odyssey of Life”, the Miramax comedy “Outside Providence” and the Hallmark mini-series, “Johnson County War.” Along with composing and performing, Sheldon is a professor at Berklee College of Music in the film scoring department.