Sunday, June 4, 2017

In their shoes -- and deeply -- in Andrew Cohn's fine documentary, NIGHT SCHOOL

Among James Baldwin's hopes was that someday, somehow America's whites would finally be able to understand, identify with and to some extent experience the lives of this country's black population. I think Baldwin would have appreciated and applauded the new documentary, NIGHT SCHOOL, directed by Andrew Cohn. In it, three disparate blacks (what they mostly have in common is their race and their lack of a high school diploma) from the Indianapolis area (which has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country) decide to try a somewhat experimental program of night school in order to finally obtain that missing diploma.

Mr. Cohn, shown at right, has obviously chosen his three protagonists with great care. Fortunately he also had the patience to stay with them as often and much as possible, and the skill to separate the wheat of his and their endeavor from the chaff. The result is a documentary that captures the lives and the hopes of his trio with surprising richness and complexity -- particularly given that the film lasts a mere 82 minutes. We also get a good strong sense of the importance of the folk -- counselors, social workers, family, friends -- who help our trio toward their goal.

Our three protagonists include Greg (shown above, with his daughter), a 31-year-old single father who tells us early on that he already has three strikes against him: He's black, a former felon and never finished high school. He's determined to counter that last strike, but along the way, it seems that he may be able to finesse the second one, too.

Melissa, above, a very large woman who is already 57, knows that she missed an opportunity by dropping out of high school, so she is determined -- as much to honor her late mother's wishes as for any great career she might at this point undertake -- to correct that mistake. We're with her at night school, working with the counselors, at home, the laundromat, even at the bus stop -- where something happens that will quietly and wonderfully change her life.

The youngest of our three is Shynika, a 26-year-old fast-food worker who is experiencing a lot of tension due to the constant pull between her need for both work and this new business of, once again, attending school. Then, midway, our girl has her consciousness raised via a labor organizer regarding the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Slowly this begins to change a lot of things for Shynika.

Slow, too, is the progress these three make. But it's there, and it's sure. And thanks to the many details Cohn records, we believe in that progress and in these three strivers, as all those details build toward a tremendously moving climax.

There's hope, suspense, struggle and disappointment -- just like in life (and in a good narrative movie). Despite Mike Pence, Indianapolis and Indiana have a night school program of which they can be proud. Let's hope they are. James Baldwin certainly would be.

From Oscilloscope Films, Night School opens this Friday, June 9, in New York City at the IFC Center; in Indianapolis on Thursday, June 15, at the IMAX Theater in the Indiana State Museum, in Los Angeles on June 23 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3; and in Detroit on Thursday, June 29, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Click here then click on SCREENINGS, as further playdates may be forthcoming.

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