After a year touring the country to screen his award-winning documentary, on Thursday March 5 Ithaca native Ira McKinley will return to his hometown for another screening of his film The Throwaways at Cinemapolis.
Just a few short years ago McKinley was homeless and jobless. Now he’s broken onto the national scene as a filmmaker and hobnobs with the likes of Cornel West and Michelle Alexander. His debut, which McKinley co-directed with Bhawin Suchak, won at both the 2014 Long Beach Indie Film Festival and the 2014 Harlem Film Festival and has been featured on a segment of Democracy Now.
McKinley got into filmmaking because of, and not in spite of, his homelessness. In The Throwaways, McKinley explains that he served time in state prison for a drug-related crime. After his release in 2002, he had a hard time finding employment and ended up being homeless. With no place to stay, he spent his days at the library in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was living. He put in countless hours doing research and circa 2008 decided to put together a showcase of work by homeless artists. Although he found someone to film the project, he wasn’t happy with the work done—until someone suggested that he go to the community television station and learn how to do the filming himself. He threw himself into it full force: “I was homeless and I had no job, so I made that my job.”
Although McKinley’s own story is one focus of the film, he said that initially that was not the intention. The first trailer focused on a homeless man, a young pregnant woman, and a mayoral candidate. However, when the videographers scheduled shooting times with the planned subjects, nobody showed up. Afterward, McKinley said, the other people involved in the film “came to me and were like, ‘If you want to get this done you’re going to have to be the character.’” At first, he was reluctant, but ultimately he decided, “Who better to tell the story than me?”
The final product is a sweeping indictment of homelessness, racism, the prison system, and the police—all issues that McKinley hopes to address in the post-screening question and answer session. He said, “We’re going to talk about what we discussed [at the Ithaca screening] last January to what has been happening now. Let’s revisit it one year later. In that year you’ve had Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. Let’s talk about solutions, positive solutions.”
While he is still in the process of showing The Throwaways—there’s another film festival he plans to attend in New Orleans next month—McKinley is also thinking ahead to his next project. Entitled Outta the Muck, the next film will detail the history of a Florida community, one where McKinley’s own family has roots. (“The Muck” is a name for the area’s mineral-rich soil, also alluded to in Bryan Mealer’s book Muck City.) The Muck, it turns out, produces a lot of football stars. McKinley finds that troubling: “I’m looking at my community and thinking, ‘You’re being brainwashed. You’re being ‘sheeple.’ They’re telling you that instead of being doctors, lawyers you’re dreaming of a being a football player, a rapper—you’re just entertaining them.’ But not everybody can be an entertainer or an athlete.” •
The Throwaways plays at Cinemapolis on Thursday, March 5 at 7 p.m
This piece originally ran in The Ithaca Times on February 25, 2015.