‘The Holly’ Review: The Tragic Case of a Denver Activist

At the point where Julian Rubinstein’s investigative documentary “The Holly” begins, an entire biopic’s worth of drama has already happened. After years in gangs and prison, Terrance Roberts became an activist and founded a successful youth program to rejuvenate a troubled Denver neighborhood known as the Holly. Then, in 2013, while organizing a peace rally in the area, he shot a gang member he knew, and was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

The film portrays Roberts’s turmoil as the 2015 trial approached, and sorts through a paranoia-inducing churn of local police crackdowns, gang activity and general controversy. Roberts prepares a self-defense plea, but vents about further blowback after he speaks out against the back channels between law enforcement and gangs.

Dangling speculations in voice-over, Rubinstein at times suggests a lower-key, adenoidal Nick Broomfield as he taps his surprisingly outspoken sources: amiable former gang members, the flamboyant Rev. Lee Kelly (who takes over as a neighborhood liaison after Roberts) and Roberts’s supportive father, also a reverend.

Roberts emerges as a Shakespearean figure of forceful magnetism who fights mightily against being viewed as a walking metaphor for the Holly’s struggles. His fearlessness is both heroic and tragic, though Rubinstein’s sometimes foggy explanations of community politics make the film feel as if it might vanish into the night at any moment. (The director, a journalist, partly shot the movie while writing a more detailed book with the same title.)

It’s all a heady brew that leaves one wanting to know even more about Roberts, who is now running for mayor in Denver. The movie resists encapsulating him, or perhaps he escapes its director’s full understanding.

The Holly
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major streaming platforms.

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