CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 13 . . . .March 3, 2006
Given the recent concerns about youth gun violence, Cheating Death is a must-see. This is a hard-hitting look at the youth gun culture from the point of view of one who not only embraced the lifestyle, but who almost became one of its many victims.
Gyasi Ferdinand says, "What does it mean to be born again? First you have to die." Die, he almost did. He was shot four times which resulted in the loss of a kidney, the removal of part of his liver, a bullet lodged in his spine, a collapsed lung, hands that were fused into fists for lack of oxygen, 37 pints of blood and being pronounced dead twice on the operating table. While recovering, he had an experience of being hugged by a faceless figure in white and decided that he would dedicate his life to God and turn away from his past lifestyle.
Cheating Death is the story of Gyasi Ferdinand, the man of God, and J9, the former drug dealer who carried a 9mm gun that earned him his street name.
The film begins in darkness with four shots fired. When the lights come on, viewers are being rushed to a hospital emergency area and through the halls to the operating table. Ferdinand states that he did not wake up for six days after the shooting.
When he came to Toronto at 13, he felt that he did not fit in until he discovered Regent Park. Here, in the company of other Black teenagers, he felt very much at home. He loved playing basketball. One day, he was approached by someone asking for drugs because, as he says, "because all Black kids sell drugs." Then he figured, "I'm out here anyway, so might as well I do something." By 17, he was selling crack cocaine with a regular clientele who knew where to find him. He was able to bring in between $1200 and $2000 a night. He was getting street smart. "You can tell who has a gun or whose friend has a gun - they have that kind of look. You just know." When a friend of his acquires a 9mm in a break and entry, Ferdinand says, "He was younger than me so I took it," thereby getting his name. He liked having the gun."You're popular with the young ladies if you have a gun. You feel on top of the world." He felt that his life was perfect at this point and there was no reason why it should stop being so.
Ferdinand saw the Parliament St. area of Toronto as belonging to Regent Park. Any outsider who dared deal drugs in the area had to be robbed and run off. They "must regulate the streets and that is where the violence comes in."
At a club, Ferdinand sees one of the dealers he has sent away. When they chanced to be in the washroom at the same time, Ferdinand suggests that they "let bygones be bygones." The other man replies, "Why did you remind me of that?' and tries to shoot him. For whatever reason, the gun does not fire. The would-be shooter runs off, but Ferdinand states, "He tried to kill me which means now I have to kill him." He acknowledges that people are not meant to be killers, but in this kind of environment, they "know they got to do what they got to do. If you don't do it, you're going to get done. I'm looking for him; he's looking for me." Seven days later, while watching television in a friend's car, Ferdinand's prediction comes true as he gets shot.
He admits that, had the other dealer come to him with an olive branch as he did, he would listen to him but would see it as a provocation. While the other would be talking, he would be planning revenge. Then he flashes the beautiful smile he would use and says that he would "be smiling with you and I'm going to kill you."
At one point in the film, Ferdinand looks at some photographs "of innocent me around 15, just starting to get into the grimy stuff." He does not like the photographs as they bring back too many memories. Following the shooting, Ferdinand found that his former friends came to say goodbye, and it was his mother and their church who cared enough to bring him back. As a result, he has dedicated his life to becoming a pastor and now visits schools. He tries to get the children to see the error of his lifestyle and encourages them to not go his route. They all want to see his scars.
At this point, the film does a radical shift. To look at Ferdinand, one could make the mistake of thinking that he escaped rather unscathed. He is handsome, articulate, charming and seems to have survived the shooting quite well. However, when he lifts his shirt and shows how his scarred stomach is not really contained and how he cannot lift anything heavy for fear of doing damage and how his hands can no longer hold a basketball, clearly he is paying for his past."Everything you do in life is about choice," he says, and now his choice is to kill J9 and try to let Minister Gyasi live. He admits that his past life is like an addiction. He must avoid his old friends as "the flesh always wants to do fleshy stuff-temptation is still strong." He feels that, if not for God, he would be just a memory.
Cheating Death helps to put a face on the seemingly faceless violence that seems so prevalent. Gyasi Ferdinand's story is powerful and well told. The film is short and could easily be used in a class period with follow-up activities. The content is disturbing. Many questions are leftunanswered. Some may find a problem with Ferdinand's new found religious fervor. He is shown at prayer often in the film, and it is distinctly Christian. However, the merits of the film override any criticism on that score. The final song lyrics may be offensive to some. A study guide is available at www.cheatingdeath.ca
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.