Private Project

The Holly

Terrance Roberts, an anti-gang activist whose work gained him national recognition, is facing life in prison. In an incident that shocked the city of Denver, Roberts shot someone at his own peace rally. The shooting happened in the so-called “Holly,” a neighborhood that was once the center of Denver’s civil rights movement—and later was Roberts’s turf back when he too was a gang member.

Journalist Julian Rubinstein, who grew up in Denver and moved back to work on this project, begins looking into the case, and finds that public reporting doesn’t match what he is hearing: that Roberts was targeted by law enforcement because of his activism. Rubinstein decides to go deep, spending seven years in the neighborhood and finding that the shooting case is a window into a shadowy world where much of the city’s violence take place, and a neighborhood which is undergoing a rapid gentrification.

Rubinstein's award-winning book on the same subject, also called The Holly, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. The documentary is a true crime mystery featuring active gang members, activists, cops, politicians, developers and Roberts’s family, including his father, a preacher who works most of the city's gang homicides. Terrance Roberts, the main character, is a complicated figure whose life symbolizes the struggles of activists and the challenges of trying to escape one’s past. The film climaxes with Roberts’s trial, as he faces life in prison in a case that exposes hidden impacts of structural racism and gentrification, and the unreported ways that law enforcement goes about fighting gang violence, which claims more lives every year in America than any other form of violent crime.

  • Julian Rubinstein
  • donnie l. betts
    Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr.
  • Sarah Dowland
    The Innocence Files, Enemie: The President, Justice and the FBI; American Jihad
  • Dia Sokol Savage
    Beeswax, Welcome Strangers, Nights and Weekends
  • Tony Hardmon
    Who Killed Malcolm X, Bloods and Crips: Made In America
  • Britta Erickson
    Silent Rose, Rolling Papers, Convention
  • Lana Garland
    Consulting Producer
    The Passing On, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives
  • Steve Maing
    Story Consultants
    Crime + Punishment, High Tech Low Life, Dirty Money
  • Randy L. Wilkins
    Story Consultants
    She's Gotta Have It, Rodney King
  • Toni Bell
    Story Consultants
  • Doug Blush
    Story Consultants
    20 Feet from Stardom, Period. End of Sentence, The Invisible War
  • Daniel Bernard Roumain
    Ailey, Homegoings
  • Lyman Smith
    The Human Element, Racing Extinction, Youth v. Gov
  • Chelsea Jackson
    Welcome Strangers, The Love Bugs
  • Adam McKay
    Executive Producer
    Don't Look Up, The Big Short, Vice, etc
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    social justice, True Crime, Activism, Human Rights
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 41 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    April 30, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    635,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4K plus mixed archival
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Distribution Information
  • Amanda Lebow, CAA
    Sales Agent
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
  • Amir Shahkhalili, William Morris
    Sales Agent
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
Director Biography - Julian Rubinstein

Julian Rubinstein is an award-winning journalist and Visiting Professor of the Practice of Documentary Journalism at the University of Denver. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and others, and collected in Best American Essays, Best American Crime Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing and twice in Best American Sports Writing. His first book, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and a New York Times “Editors Choice.” His new book, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, took seven years to report and was published in May, 2021. It was named a New York Times “Editors’ Choice,” and formed the basis for this documentary.

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Director Statement

Growing up in Denver, I knew little more about the Holly than the stories that made the media about its problems with drugs and gangs. Later, as a journalist, when I read about the turmoil there following the shooting at the heart of this film, I wanted to know more. Why had a revered anti-gang activist shot a young gang member at his own peace rally? I flew home.

I soon recognized that community opinions about the case and of the neighborhood were not accurately represented in the media. As I began to further develop sources, it became clear that a deep look into the case could provide a window into a part of the city where most of its violence took place, and where America’s premiere federal anti-gang and anti-gun programs had been running for years. The neighborhood was also undergoing a rapid gentrification that included financing from some of the most powerful entities in the city.

I moved back to Denver and spent the next seven years reporting a book, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save An American Neighborhood, which was published earlier this year. In the process of reporting the book, critical events began happening in front of me and I was able to get permission from people to begin filming.

I believe this film has the rare chance to illuminate otherwise unseen connections between City Hall, police, developers and gang members in the streets. And it reveals major flaws in the federal effort to fight gang violence. The story also examines whether activist leaders in gang communities who challenge the system are themselves becoming targets.