Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 04, 2020 6:28 pm 
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Focusing on the kids Bush was reading to in Sarasota when 9/11 happened

As you may recall, because it was a most memorable day, when President George W. Bush learned for certain that the US had in effect suffered a major terrorist attack - his chief of staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear that the Twin Towers had been hit by a second plane, and it was a big one - he was in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida. It was the second grade at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, and it was to promote improved reading for his No Child Left Behind program. This class had scored well. Except for one Latino, his parents born in Cuba, they were all black. Director Elizabeth St. Philip, a Canadian, has chosen to come to Sarasota in 2018-2019, when these students are now 25 or 26 years old, to see where they are now. Could this have been the starting point for a resonant, searching look at America? Not certain. In the event, it's not very searching - and involves a lot of talking heads - but it is revealing: of what it's been like since 9/11 growing up black in America. Perhaps we know this. But closer looks are always timely, especially now. And we wish this film had looked closer at Lazaro Dubrocq and Tyler Radkey. They are among the six of the 17 who are covered, but we could have learned more.

We could go into all the details about this event, as this film to some extent does, but they are beside the point. Yes, it's good to know the kids were going through a reading exercise called The Pet Goat (not a book, and Bush was not reading it) supervised by their teacher, Kay Daniels. They saw the President turn red in the face and look very uncomfortable, but remain politely - and reassuringly - in his chair till The Pet Goat was finished. He said a few encouraging words before he got up to take on the responsibility of confronting 9/11. His attempt at calm comportment, notably [url=""]mocked by Michael Moore[/url] in his 2004 [url=""]Fahrenheit 9/11[/url] does not, after all, seem entirely misguided, in the circumstances. It makes some sense that the maintenance of a calm demeanor was paramount, even if the students remember he looked very agitated, or as if maybe "he had to pee." On the other hand, Bush may simply have been frozen, not what you want of a leader in a national emergency. Director Philip ought to have noted the ambiguity of this moment, not just passed over it. But if President Bush had continued to remain calm and do nothing, if the country had remained restrained and calm and left the management of foreign terrorism to the intelligence services - and acted promptly on their advice - the world would be better off today than it has been in the pursuit of two destructive major wars that have devastated and disrupted the Middle East. And we have things like the Patriot Act, and a more repressive, fearful country. Nobody in this film considers those aspects. One student, La’Damien Smith, is a PFC in the Army, patriotic and ready to be "deployed."

The US has not taken major steps toward a more just society. What about the class today? One is dead. Megan Diaz is disabled by gunshot wounds. Confined to a wheel chair, as a woman who was battered by her husband for four years, she she has become a motivational speaker for women in this situation. Another was seriously harmed by a police attack and has, nonetheless, gone to jail. Another, perhaps the most haunting of all, is Tyler Radkey, whose case deserves more attention, as does Lazaro Duborcq's. The latter says he grew up essentially as a foreigner here, since when he was young his command of English was imperfect. His parents let their mortgage payments lapse, he says, to pay for his college education, and he has become a chemical engineer. He has the patriotism of a first-generation American and the heightened awareness of one so directly connected to 9/11, and so we see him visit the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan by himself, and look around. (It's impressive.) But he notes ruefully and correctly that if he and his parents had come along now, they would not be allowed to live in this country at all. America has strengthened the barriers, even though as Lazaro and his parents acknowledge, the immigrants will come in from the south, over or under or around any wall, because they have no alternative.

As for Tyler Radkey, look at the photo of the kids in the class for Bush's visit and you'll see him. He is in the middle of the front row, sitting taller than anyone else, his eyes open and ready, a smile on his face, his hair in stylish corn rows. Even then he was stylish, and he had everything going for him. One of the girls confesses she was in love with him then. He tested high for academic ability and he was an athlete. His mother has row on row of sports trophies. But he had a wild streak and got in trouble. And that, in the ghetto, means hanging out with the wrong people. This led to several years in state prison. When we meet him, he has a job and is attempting to turn his life around. But he is guilty of driving while black. A police officer pulls him over for not having his seat belt attached. This, of course, for a while man would mean a ticket, or a warning. For Ridley it leads to more jail time.

A spokesman for the community heard throughout this film and a kind of surrogate narrator is local radio personality "Uncle" Ronnie Phelps. He describes how total the cutoff of the black community is, literally across the tracks, and we see it, a typical modern American suburban ghetto. Ronnie points out that only when black men are pulled over for a minor offense do the cops ask to search their car. So they search Tyler's and find some marijuana. He is charged with dealing drugs. The best the public defender can get him in a plea bargain is two years in the state prison. We see him receive this sentence and be handcuffed. So in the second photo of the kids today, he is not present. He is still, somehow, cool. But his life has been derailed. One would have liked more depth about the life of Tyler, considering that St. Philip says in [url=""]interviews[/url] he was the student who had the greatest impact on her.

Central to the film are several women from the class, especially the showoff-y Natalia Pinkney Jones, with her ebullient spirit, large wig collection, and attempt to make a go of a babysitting agency. In contrast to her, and something new to our era, is Dinasty Brown, a black woman with a lot of ambition to make money, who became a social media entrepreneur after high school, and has done so, and shows off her new Mercedes and array of jewelry to prove it.

Through all these scenes the film keeps returning to Uncle Ronnie at his radio mike. He, like Natalia, provides a constant thread, and what he points out about the class, money, and race barriers in Sarasota is valuable, though some of his remarks just feel like filler. Likewise with the class's original teacher, Kay Daniels. A big, motherly woman, she is the one the grownup kids embrace at the film's staged reunion, and her remarks thread through the film. She seeks to motivate them, calling even the worst bad luck of the group "hiccups." But her admonitions to be tough get repetitious and might have been trimmed back. Black Americans are plenty tough. They need more than that. But "Hold On: Change is Coming" is the theme song of the film.

9/11 Kids, 88 mins., had a TV and internet release in Canada in Apr. 2020 and showed at Miami Beach (American Black Film Festival) Aug. 21, and was screened for this review as part of DOC NYC (Nov. 11-19, 2020.


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