Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 25, 2021 7:49 am 
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Vivid snapshot of a politically canny generation in Oakland

Homeroom is the third in Peter Nicks' documentary trilogy about institutions in Oakland, California, following Waiting Room in 2012 about Highland Hospital and The Force in 2017 about the Oakland police. This time the focus is Oakland High School, specifically on the class of 2020, an unusually turbulent year. Waiting Room made a stunning, emotionally exhausting set piece; The Force was a more fraught, less searching but thorough treatment of a timely subject. Homeroom has met with a less enthusiastic critical response. Indeed, it has multiple failings the other two films lacked. Still, despite the mess it depicts, it's heartwarming. I watched these students in action with growing admiration and even affection.

Homeroom is rather a misnomer, implying a focus on the interior of a classroom or classrooms. Such interiors are glimpsed, usually only for seconds at a time. But Nicks had a moving target this time: a growing, changing, smartphone-wielding generation of black, brown and Asian-American California teens. His real focus is politics. Accordingly, what we come away with is how political these high school seniors' lives are. They are a focused, committed, articulate generation, skilled at using the instant connectedness of social media to communicate and organize. They are aware of the significant events of the moment, especially the ones that most touch on their own lives. In a changing world, they live the changes moment to moment.

Accordingly, the one student, Denilson Garibo, who emerges as the "star," is a young man of avowed political "passion," currently one of two student "directors" on the Oakland city school board. (He frequently points out that he represents 36,000 students.) He will lead a campaign to eliminate the city's special police force dedicated to the schools. This comes first early in the year, when the vote to remove fails. Garibo's speech haranguing the board, especially members of color, for this denial, is an early demonstration of his moral authority and public confidence. One of the film's impressive moments comes outside after this defeat when a small group of students rally to support each other and are not at all disheartened. This push to defund, not the city police, but the schools-dedicated force, is prescient. In this case, it's clear the constant presence of cops on school grounds is only traumatizing to black and brown students who've been menaced by them all their lives. The eventual success of this motion will be a powerful sign of empowerment for that 36,000.

Later in the year, in another vote, when youth throughout the country have taken to the streets over the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and "defund the police" has become an urban rallying cry, Garibo will win the vote by the school board.

The best moments in Homeroom come when students speak up on issues and challenge authority and when they celebrate their lives. Their enthusiasm for life, their warmth toward each other, is infectious. The film falls short in many other areas. It doesn't penetrate deeply into the lives of individual students, not even Garibo's; we only glimpse his family, understandably since they are undocumented, a major reason for wanting to avoid contact with police. The film does not enter private lives, it does not introduce individuals save those who appear in public, at rallies or meetings.

I've waited, as does the film, to mention the elephant in the room: the COVID-19 pandemic. This arises almost imperceptibly and then suddenly is everywhere, and then the school is closed, the students are sent home. Memorably, boys climb and find the basketball nets are boarded shot so well they can't even shoot hoops any more. We do enter some homes in the shutdown and see kids sitting around, on their phones. Zoom and social media enable them to be in touch with each other. And then come the police killings that lead to the summer global George Floyd protests.

If you see COVID as a disaster for Homeroom's picture of Oakland High School, you'd probably be wrong. It cramps the camera coverage, but there has already been a lot of that. It is a powerful opportunity to show the class's digital coping mechanisms: they do manage to have a celebratory graduation anyway. The organization of the protests and the success of the school police defunding vote have been impressive.

What about academics in all this? About bringing a mastery of standard English to the most disadvantaged students? No, instead what fills the soundtrack is a lot of colorful vernacular, highlighted by the favorite local connectives, "hella" and "hecka." It looks like student SAT scores are in the lower range. The film focuses on a handful of students who apply and get into colleges, but rather fleetingly. An Asian American girl says her score (in the 900's) "brought down the average." One guy notably quips that he hopes an entrepreneurship program will make him such a success he can drop out of college early. But in terms of maturity, these kids we observe closest are more than ready for college; they are leaders. What about the white teachers? Do they connect with the almost overwhelmingly non-white students? Where are the city's white kids? Why are they elsewhere? These are questions the film doesn't answer.

The film, like the two before it, uses a vérité method that precludes voiceovers or talking heads or even subtitles. The advantage is fluidity, life, which Homeroom abounds in. The disadvantage is our ignorance, and worst of all, a superficiality in depicting lives. By being of the moment the film sacrifices the wisdom of prolonged observation.

It would be remiss not to mention the film's dedication, to Nick's 17-year-old daughter Karina, a victim of bipolar disorder who died of a drug overdose early in the making of the film. Nicks decided to continue, to bury his grief in the work. A tragic event, a brave decision. The movie poster should also be mentioned: a brilliant double image that combines black student raising his hand to be called on in a classroom with black man giving the black power salute.

Homeroom, 90 mins., debuted Jan. 29, 2021 at Sundance, showing also at Toronto (Hot Docs), Columbia, MO (True/False), Durham, NC (Full Frame), Philadelphia (Black Star; internet). Internet-released by Hulu Aug. 12, 2021. Importantly, it is available to be watched together there with Waiting Room and The Force. This trilogy is impressive, as monumental a portrait of a city in its own way as a film by Frederick Wiseman.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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