Graduate student Andrew Hedden published a review essay, “Qualities of Life," for the classic Seattle documentary Streetwise/Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. This commentary was commissioned for a DVD release of the documentary by the Criterion Collection company in 2021. Hedden is associate director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department.
Cinema has the ability to radically reorder our worldviews, to bring margin to center. It can transform subjects on the social fringes into matters of concern fundamental to human life. This is the power of Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, and Cheryl McCall’s Streetwise (1984) and Bell and Mark’s Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016), films impossible to turn away from, not because of the social horrors they expose (and they expose plenty) but because of the humanity they reveal in the struggles of their subjects. These portraits of teenagers inhabiting the streets of Seattle in the 1980s and of one of those kids thirty years later each condense time in a different way—from a typical day on the streets to a lifetime building a home—in order to show the daily routines that threaten to destroy their subjects, but also those that allow them to truly live. In the camaraderie between the teenagers Rat and Dewayne and Tiny, in the kinship forged in the home of Erin Blackwell, we see the transcendent moments that make freedom real. We also see how very fragile such moments can be in a world that demands you sacrifice your time and your labor in order to simply survive. “The only bad part about flying,” the intrepid and itinerant Rat laments in the opening monologue of Streetwise, “is having to come back down to the fucking world.”