Project 2-3-1 Review

AKA: Project 2-3-1: Two Boxcars, Three Blocks, One City
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2015

Distributor: Grindstone Productions/Elgin Area Historical Society
Origin: USA
Running Time: 75 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 12+
Related Films/Series: N/A

For Fans Of: I Am Not Your Negro, Underground, Roots of Resistance, Hate Crimes In The Heartland
Notes: N/A

Fun Facts:

-Elgin, the town where Project 2-3-1 takes place is the eighth-largest city in Illinois with over 110,000 people (estimate). This is also the same city that inspired the fictional town of Lanford in Roseanne. It was also mentioned or portrayed in Dennis the Menace (live action remake), Grace Under Fire, and even The Purge to name a few.

-On the Underground Railroad, 110 slaves made it to Elgin in 1862.

-Grindstone Productions has covered the International Sports Hall of Fame. Some of the people featured in these video projects include Royce Gracie, Evander Holyfield, Kurt Angle, Triple HHH, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger.

-The executive producer Ernie Broadnax (who’s also prominently featured in this documentary) was the first black man in Elgin to occupy office space when he ran the first integrated after-school program (credit to the Daily Herald)

Many of my followers should know by now that racial issues are one that I have covered in various documentaries and even the occasional fictional film. It’s a matter that I’m forced to be conscientious of on so many different levels. I’m also doing my best to be aware of the history that’s been told and the history that’s hidden. What really made this choice of reviewing this doc really important is because it hit home with me despite many of the events featured happening decades and even over a century since before I was born.

This hits home for me because it deals with a city I grew up in and I had to know the history of the place nicknamed as “The City to Watch” and “The City in the [Chicago] Suburbs”.

Project 2-3-1 is a documentary that is divided into three episodes, if you will. The first portion known as “Two Boxcars” is about America during the height of slavery and the Civil War. African-Americans had started to flee from the South even with the fear of being found by the slave patrol and/or lynched. Some of them gathered together in two boxcars to find their way to the Northern states. It ended up being in Illinois, and they’d settle in a town called Elgin which is Northwest of Chicago. The second portion is called “Three Blocks”. It’s shown by the long time Elginite resident and Civil Rights activist Ernie Broadnax as he shows the history of three blocks in the Northeast side of the city that was predominantly African-American while going over the lives of the people who lived in these houses, their jobs, and explaining what life was like for black people growing up here for better or worse. Thirdly, the final segment is called “One City”. This becomes a discussion of the past and present ramifications of race relations in Elgin, Illinois while relating to other events across America. People of all colors are shown is this part as they talk about how we have to understand the past in order to change the future when it comes to being in a diverse area such as Elgin.

This was the first time in my life I had seen a whole documentary let alone a film deal with a city I’m very familiar with. I never realized how much of this was documented for over a hundred and fifty years let alone tying into the Civil War. I’ve been proud to have grown up in a multicultural environment and many of those facets strengthened my opinions of the good things that have happened. I was enthralled with how much was covered here. Seeing Ernie Broadnax talking about the experiences of those growing up was mind-blowing to me with how people were trying to make a living, but also striving to prove every bigot wrong that they can be just as good of a member of society as their Caucasian counterparts. It was certainly inspiring to say the least. 

Even though there were some triumphs going on with the Black citizens in Elgin, there were certainly tribulations. I was shocked that the KKK did a rally there before I was born which just saddened me. There were stories about the school athletes having to stay on the bus while starving as their white teammates ate at whatever restaurants were there since those businesses hadn’t integrated yet. Some of the people had to buck the preconceived notions of them being subhuman while trying to start their own businesses or in a few cases running for local office in town.

Despite not being alive during the times of those events, I could relate to some of their situations. One of the interviewees casually mentioned that there have been situations of white people being afraid or suspicious of him and in some instances involving Caucasian women clutching their purses as they thought he was going to rob them. Shoot, I’m lighter-skinned than him and most of the other people shown on camera, yet that situation has happened to me before. Trust me, I could give a laundry list of times where I was discriminated against and profiled because of me being an ethnic minority, but this little review isn’t about me. If you’re a minority, you can and will relate to these people. If you’re not, then this will be a needed wake-up call. Project 2-3-1 doesn’t mince words when it comes to the stories in Elgin, yet these stories can happen anywhere.

While Project 2-3-1 has many admirable qualities, I would be a liar if I said that this was on par as Hate Crimes In The Heartland in terms of a quality documentary about race relations. For starters, the presentations felt way too much like a PBS documentary to me including a pre-roll credits and voice over mentioning the sponsors of this documentary. I half expected a “viewers like you” moment at the tail end of that scene before the movie proper started. While the production of the interviews and historical documents were well-done, I did notice a green screen effect that didn’t translate well into the visuals in the first segment. I also found the Underground Railroad reenactment to be on the cheesy side. There was a historical story that really didn’t help the case of the film as a whole and it involved the tale of the local business (now defunct) being Green’s Fried Chicken. I understand wanting to start one’s own business and I don’t want to judge anyone if they like that food, but a restaurant enterprise like that will only enhance an obvious stereotype about Black people which is something that should be avoided. It’s also the same feeling I have of KFC previously sponsoring BET’s Black History Month PSAs (not that BET was an empowering channel since the Viacom acquisition, but that’s another topic). This may also be a more subjective feeling, but I feel that those outside of the Chicagoland area at large may not be into the documentary’s content and can feel foreign even if that person is from Illinois much less America for example.

Project 2-3-1 was a remarkable documentary that I certainly want others to watch. The content of this film was vast in such a short amount of time and I really enjoyed the correlations between the past and present. Each segment can stand on their own, but they really act as chapters to a much larger story that’s bigger that what’s on the DVD. The personal stories of the residents that survived are incredibly powerful. Granted, there were a few technical issues like a mediocre green screen and some aliasing, but the other visuals were still serviceable. Project 2-3-1 is one independent documentary that did a wonderful effort in showing a city’s history while also pertaining to issues affecting America. Highly recommended.

Adjustable Point System:

Add 1 point if you like historical documentaries.
Subtract 2-3 points if racial topics make you uncomfortable.
Subtract 1 point if you want flawless production.

-Exquisite history and personal stories
-Well-researched events
-Coalescence of how past and present issues affect everyone an not just POCs


-Some visual hiccups
-PBS documentary fanboying
-The fried chicken shop story can reinforce stereotypes

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Warning: If this got a rating, I could picture it getting a really hard PG or a PG-13. Some of the stories have disturbing content such as the KKK rallies, lynchings, and even the more recent events of police brutality this decade so far. The N-Word is definitely used multiple times and it’s surprisingly the only noticeable profanity.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.


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