Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America


Education shouldn’t and doesn’t begin at kindergarten.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Steve Bullock, Cynthia Jackson, James B. Hunt Jr., Ralph Northam, Phil Bryant, Kay Ivey, Aaliyah Samuel, Jeana Ross, Kathrine B. Stevens, Misty Blackmon, Pamela Northam, Diana Mendley Rauner, Todd Klunk, Archie Jones, Jeff Coleman, Diane Schanzenbach, Rebecca Berlin, Rachel Wagner, Amy Dunn, Sunny McPhillips. Directed by Willa Kammerer

 

A documentary often exists to present a specific point of view. If you asked Michael Moore why he doesn’t present the conservative response to his films, he would probably say “that’s not my job” (only much less politely, I think). Some documentaries, though, need to present more than one viewpoint in order to be effective.

Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America isn’t really a movie: it’s a PowerPoint presentation. It’s an avalanche of talking heads that drown you with information and sound bites until it starts leaking out of your ears and nose. Kammerer’s heart is in the right place, certainly; more attention needs to be paid to early childhood education, particularly for those families less able to afford quality child care. The Saul Zaentz foundation, established by the late Hollywood producer and jazz label founder, has undertaken that as a mission.

I think there was some confusion in regards to mission; the film opens with a graphic stating that the film is apolitical, not subscribing to a particular political party nor any specific state’s method of doing things, then spends more than half the film’s brief run time taking a deep dive into the success of the program in Alabama. That’s right, Alabama; not a state most people would associate with good education has the best record for early childhood education in the United States. I admit to being floored by that.

The talking heads – made up of state governors and former governors, other politicians, educators, academics, researchers and business leaders – stress the economic benefit of early childhood education. Getting kids started on socialization skills and learning how to learn from a very young age will help our kids do better in school and eventually, allow them to get better, more demanding jobs and contribute economically to the betterment of our society. In a way, it was chilling; are we interested in turning out intelligent citizens able to think for themselves, or automatons who are slaves to the wheel, as the saying goes. Given how certain politicians couldn’t wait to get people back to work during a pandemic, it would be forgivable if you assumed the latter.

Not to say that this isn’t a slick piece of work; there are plenty of charts and graphs accompanying the talking heads, interspersed with laughing, playing children in day care centers being taught how to play and problem solve. However, we don’t get a ton of specifics as to how, only that it must be done. We do hear some information about brain development but it gets lost in the noise of the constant barrage of people declaring how this is the Most Important Thing In the Country.

And I get it – this is a very important subject. Educating our children and preparing them for adulthood is one of the main functions of any society. However, there are documentaries that cover this subject that are much more effective. I suspect this was meant for showing to politicians at education conferences, or educators and academics at similar conferences. For general viewers, this is a hard slog to get to an important point. It’s pretty in the sense of the graphics and the happy, smiling kids but at the end of the day, unless you have a small child or are planning to have one, there may be very little interest in the subject for you and the movie won’t generate any – but it should.

REASONS TO SEE: An important subject we should all be invested in.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much a movie as a PowerPoint presentation.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alabama is one of the only states in the union to have a dedicated cabinet member for early childhood education.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Small Matter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Again Once Again