Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 03, 2017 9:51 am 
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Back to school in search of hope

Forget your H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N images of "adult" education and cross-cultural charm. Not much of Andrew Cohn's sensitive and eye-opening documentary even focuses on the classroom. This the Excel Center program's 38th St. area school, an adult high school for people who dropped out now working for high school equivalency for work and self esteem. They're all in a part of Indianapolis with an exceptionally high dropout rate, and Indianapolis itself beats most of the rest of the country. They are nearly all black. As students they lived in the ghetto with its poverty, dangers, and distractions and they still do. Cohn lived there too for 18 months - not easy (he had a break-in and was held up at gunpoint, and the all white crew got a lot of stares) - but as he said in an interview, he could return to Brooklyn; his subjects couldn't. However Andrew Cohn deserves inclusion in the elite ranks of America's most humanistic documentary filmmakers. This is a powerful portrait of people struggling to get their lives together and succeeding against the most difficult of odds.

Cohn chose three who were representative, interesting, and allowed him access - to their homework and classrooms but more extensively to their lives. Most focus is on Gregory Henson, a thirty-year-old former drug dealer who goes on to become, in effect, the valedictorian of the class. He has a string of minor convictions from his wild youth. He confesses he quit high school to deal drugs. A big focus is his work with a lawyer on expungement of his record so job applications won't be turned down because of it. Since he has to go in for one pending sentencing it counts as too recent for the expungement to be completed. He also has custody of a volatile young daughter, Khloe, and a brother who's still in the life (they argue about this), and gets shot, one of the dramas that nearly derails him, as is discovery that his daughter is epileptic. But he weathers all these. His surprise and happiness when he learns he has passed his exam are beyond touching. He is still pursuing his expungement and now working as a counselor at a local high school.

Melissa Lewis is 52, and overweight, and perhaps depressed. During the course of the year we see her meet a man on a bus and start dating (she also bonds with another woman classmate of her age). Melissa fails algebra for the third or fourth time but her teacher writes her an impressive letter of encouragement and motivation, and she tearfully attends the graduation and the next year is part of it. Despite her difficulty with algebra, Melissa has fun with her boyfriend, who's there shedding tears at her graduation, and starts to look better: she blooms.

Cohn's third subject is Shynika Jakes, who tells that she was an honor student in middle school, but went downhill in high school after joining a bad crowd. She is 26 and works in an Arby's fast food restaurant whose manager cares little for her need to study. She is recruited by a rep of the Fight for $15 movement and after traveling to a rally and a meeting, decides to join. This is empowerment for Shynika, who later gets an excellent score on her test and now no longer works at Arby's but at a travel agency, has found a house, and lives with her boyfriend. She had wanted to be a nurse.

There's not much about the school, or many heartwarming moments in the classroom. We do see some charismatic people at the school, notably Bryan Daniel, a counselor. There's a lot about the exam, the ECA, End of Course Assessment. It seems it normally focuses either on algebra or English, or both, but I got that by looking it up, not from the film. This school offers a high school diploma rather than a GED, which may not carry as much weight in business applications or qualify for some college or university admissions. A high school diploma, which Melissa, Shynika and Greg got, counts for more in long term earnings for them. For Melissa it just may count for more self respect. But whether it's jobs or self respect, these students - who the faculty know would have graduated from high school if they'd been in a white middle class neighborhood - have gone back to gather the hope from which they were deprived. This is an inspiring and touching film. But it comes with a bitter edge, the reminder that the poverty of this rich country is a shame. Why does the USA have places where education is so badly derailed?

Night School, 85 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 2016; six other small US festivals and won Best Documentary Feature last year at the Heartland Film Festival. Oscilloscope starts the theatrical release 9 Jun. 2017 at IFC Center, where there will be Q&As with Andrew Cohn 6 pm ; also on 10 Jun. at the 4:05pm and 6pm shows and 11 Jun. at the 4:05 show.

Cohn's previous film, Medora, also focused on a few students at a school, is about the high school basketball team of a vanishing Indiana town that wants to win a game. It was reviewed by Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

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