Ira McKinley, a middle-aged and lumbering man with a huge smile, a firm handshake, and an outspoken opinion, walked to the front of the stage while filming the crowd during a standing ovation following the screening of his acclaimed documentary The Throwaways at the Academy of Music.
According to the film’s website, The Throwaways “speaks directly to the national movement that is rising up and fighting back against a wave of police killings of black people.”
The documentary film follows McKinley as he advocates against racist agendas and explores cultural issues in Albany, New York. “I thought it was very raw,” said Jamila Gord, of Northampton, “I knew Ira when he lived in Northampton, when he was a local. It’s cool to see him get this thing off the ground.”
The film is co-directed, filmed and edited by Bhawin Suchak, a filmmaker, educator and activist from Albany. He founded and runs Youth FX, a summer filmmaking program for inner-city teens. So far, the documentary has been selected into 10 film festivals and has won 2 of them. The film took three years to make and was released in 2014..
McKinley, who is an Air Force Veteran from Ithica, New York, wasn’t always the powerful social activist at the forefront of the modern-day civil rights movement that he is today. In 1989 he was charged with disorderly conduct and was beaten up by police. By the time he went to trial, he had been arrested 10 times. In 1999 he was imprisoned at the Arthur Hill Correctional Facility in New York for robbing a Bodega. He said that he was addicted to crack at the time.
After being released from prison in 2002, Mckinley said that he couldn’t find a job or “become a successful member of society.” Instead he found himself homeless, living in a tent in Northampton. He lived “under the elements” for about three months until a friend gave him a place to stay.
“I came to realize that the only thing people wanted me to do was live in a homeless shelter or go to rehab, they expected me to fail,” said McKinley. “And that’s when I started my activism. To show that we’re people.” He went on to say that after being branded by the justice system, it’s nearly impossible for ex-inmates to find work or to have a full life. McKinley went to Northampton Community Television, took a class in TV Production and resolved to make film documentaries. “This is my weapon now, this is my equalizer,” McKinley said, while holding a video camera, “The camera is a tool for change.”
“Media is power,” said Suchak, “Because no one (else) is gonna tell them about it. We have to recognize its power on people.”
In 2007, he started a Homeless Arts Showcase and won the Northampton Arts Council’s “Emerging Filmmaker” grant. He also won the Producer of the Year for his work at NCTV.
After moving back to Albany he collaborated with Suchak and began working on The Throwaways. The film was inspired by the killing of his father by police when he was 14 years “The last thing he said to me was ‘make sure you take care of your mother. It was like he knew,” McKinley said.
After the screening, McKinley and Suchak sat on the stage and answered questions from the audience. Suchak said that the reason why they decided to focus on police brutality, is because of the deeply emotional and personal stories of the family and friends of the victims. “Media is power,” said Suchak, “Because no one (else) is gonna tell them about it. We have to recognize its power on people.”
Sylvia Shread, a 9th grade student from Northampton High School who watched the film, said that kids her age need to educate themselves on social issues. “In my school, there are a couple of social justice clubs,” she said, “We need to speak up and be an active bystander, and not just get angry.”
“Education is the key, love is key as well,” said McKinley, “My solution was learning film. . . I got a voice.”