Invisible Denver made indelible in a new documentary

‘The Holly’ connects the dots between the Mile High City’s history of gang violence, real estate development, law enforcement practices and one complicated man.


Julian Rubinstein’s years-long connection with Denver community organizer Terrance Roberts lies at the heart of his new documentary, The Holly. The relationship began just as most of Roberts’ former supporters were turning away from him. In September 2013, on the day of a peace rally Roberts organized, he shot and wounded Blood gang member Hasan Jones. Rubinstein, who grew up in Denver, was working as a journalist in Brooklyn when he read about Roberts’ subsequent arrest for attempted murder. He couldn’t understand why a man who had built up so much goodwill as an organizer would shoot someone, and he flew home to Denver to investigate. “I had no idea that I would spend the next seven years trying to get to the bottom of his case,” he said, “nor how tangled up in it I would become.” As the movie unfolds, Roberts attempts to prove he shot Jones in self-defense, and Rubinstein examines the tensions that led up to that moment. The intimacy between Roberts and Rubinstein sets the personal tone of the film, which brings the viewer into late-night gatherings on neighborhood porches, to weekend barbecues and into the memento-stuffed home of Roberts’ pastor father. 

Rubinstein filmed the documentary while writing his meticulously reported 2021 book, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood. In the 1980s, when the oil bust hit, the resulting economic devastation collided with the crack epidemic and the arrival of gangs. The Holly neighborhood became the center of the Bloods, while Crips controlled other neighborhoods, including Five Points. Roberts joined the Bloods, he said, “because I really, really loved my community.” Known as Showbizz, he rode around with a MAC-11, fighting off Crip incursion. In 1993, when he was 17, he was critically wounded by gunfire. Subsequent arrests led to 10 years of incarceration, including one spent in solitary confinement. While in prison, Roberts studied various Black activists, and experienced an awakening. He vowed to work to prevent gang violence after his release in 2004.

But street gang membership was for life, and active Bloods — rankled by what they saw as Roberts’ betrayal — remained in the neighborhood he sought to transform. Roberts started Prodigal Son, a nonprofit that arranged after-school activities for children as an alternative to gangs, and the Camo Movement, which encouraged people to put aside gang colors and wear camouflage instead. Roberts went about his vocation earnestly, and his charm and authenticity drew people to him. He began to receive funding, awards and community support. But he was adamant about keeping his activities separate from law enforcement, and he refused to provide incriminating information to city officials.

After the Crips burned down the Holly Shopping Center in 2008, Roberts advocated for the construction of a community center in its place. His vision was eventually realized, but, as The Holly shows, he was gradually squeezed out of the movement he’d built. The majority of federal anti-gang funding flowed through law enforcement programs, and Roberts was pushed aside for others who were more willing to cooperate with police. As one of his friends put it, police “wanted someone they could control.”

The developers who swooped in to reimagine the neighborhood seemed more comfortable collaborating with community organizers who were approved by the city’s law enforcement, while the newly available jobs seldom went to the locals who needed them most. The statements and videos Rubinstein captured suggest that high-ranking Bloods, some of whom may have been employed as police informants, ordered Hasan Jones to attack Roberts on the day that Roberts shot Jones in 2013.

Roberts is a complicated character, though he stayed out of trouble from 2004 to the 2013 shooting, and remained involved with peacemaking and community-building efforts. But he was, and is, an outspoken “firebrand,” and Rubinstein acknowledges that he may have been involved in illicit activities that Rubinstein wasn’t aware of.

As the movie builds toward the outcome of Roberts’ 2015 trial, the tone becomes increasingly elegiac. I am not a neutral observer of this film or the book that preceded it; they moved and shook me, in part because I knew several of the people they feature, and also because they elucidated some of the troubling mysteries behind those confusing, violent years just before Denver’s great gentrification.

I grew up going to school inside what Rubinstein calls in the book “invisible Denver,” in neighborhoods claimed by Crips during the crack wars of the 1990s. Rubinstein’s phrase “invisible Denver” applied words to a phenomenon I could never fully understand — the fact that most of those who lived outside Denver had no knowledge of the extent of its gang violence.

At my middle school in northeast Denver, carloads of Crips rolled by when we were in the schoolyard, the gang members flying their colors and flashing signs, recruiting kids. In 1991, approximately two dozen armed Bloods invaded my high school, Thomas Jefferson. After they pushed aside the principal, he ran to the office to instruct us over the PA to take cover and lock the doors. I huddled on the floor underneath a teacher’s desk while the Bloods roamed freely, tapping the barrels of their guns against classroom windows, calling out for Crips they wanted to confront. The police were slow to respond, and the incident produced barely a ripple in the local media. People living outside of invisible Denver dismissed the entire episode as “just gang stuff.” I can’t help wondering if any of the Bloods Rubinstein interviewed were among those who invaded my school.

Rubinstein’s film and book strike me as important records of a segment of Denver society that’s often ignored — a powerful witness to a community’s ongoing struggle and confirmation that the lives lost to the ongoing gang violence matter. From reading The Holly, I learned of the death of one of my classmates, Christopher Swain. But I was encouraged to learn of the survival and evolution of another classmate, Gerald Wright, who emerges as one of the primary characters in Rubinstein’s documentary. Wright was an extremely talented basketball athlete. He made the boys’ varsity team our freshman year; my brother was his teammate, and one of their primary opponents was future NBA All-Star Chauncey Billups. Everyone thought Wright could be as good as Billups. But Wright was a Crip; he dropped out of school and in 1994, some Bloods shot him in the head. In The Holly, I was heartened to see that he healed both physically and emotionally, risking his life to oppose the use of active gang members as police informants and serving as an anti-gang activist alongside Roberts. Rubinstein’s work brings coherence to a struggle that felt like bloody chaos when I witnessed it, and as gang violence in Denver surges once again, it provides indelible insights about its root causes.

NOTE: This story was updated to correct that some Bloods ordered Jones to attack Roberts, not to kill him.

Jenny Shank’s story collection Mixed Company won the Colorado Book Award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and her novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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