I teach a film class I inherited from a retired teacher. I’d never taught film before – and if I’m honest, my brother is the movie guy. We have a family friend who used to teach a film course at Eastern. When I told him about my class, he reminded me that I knew nothing about movies.
He may be right, but I like movies. And I do understand a little bit about stories.
But it’s true I failed the only film class I took. It was too early, and I didn’t like the first few movies the professor screened so I stopped going. I kept that in mind while combing the closets of the previous teacher, full of DVDs I never watched before, for movies to screen. I decided stories focused on the youth experience was the way to engage students of varied tastes and identities.
There are so many stories about teenagers. Hollywood figured out early kids would pay real money to watch stories about themselves. They’re also the group with the most time to sit around and watch movies.
I was surprised to find out the opposite – that youth representation in popular films fails to reach the percentage of young people in this country. And within that category, it’s whiter than a Henry James story.
I buy into a “windows and mirrors” philosophy on literacy–that stories can simultaneously provide us windows to the world around us, and also reflect our own experience. Really good ones do both. I looked for variety in the experiences, identities, and backgrounds in these stories thinking that the more kinds of stories about different people we see, the better we can empathize with those people.
And after looking at the data, I had to ensure that I made visible the groups presently invisibile both behind and in front of the camera.
The movies needed style. If they had a little edge, even better. The big essential questions I cared about focused on our ability to read images closely, to learn the grammar of movie-making, and to understand the way filmmakers use this form to construct identity and tell stories that can challenge our worldviews in fantastic ways.
I went digging. I scoured lists, and added movie channels to my streaming accounts. I subscribed to the Criterion channel. I joined LetterBoxd and started writing reviewsI found movies I’d never seen before – great movies. I found The Hairy Bird, a fun teen comedy set in the 60s about an all-girls private school. I found speculative stories such as D.E.B.S., and other genre films.
We watched early shorts from contemporary filmmakers Ryan Coogler, Sofia Coppola, and Gina Prince-Blythewood.
My school’s rigid film policy made it hard to find the kind of representation I wanted in my class, especially when it came to queer stories.
Early on we watched Marlon Riggs’s documentary, Ethnic Notions. I remembered this film from my own high school years, and its clear discussion of racial stereotypes reminds us why it’s important to ask questions about who is in front of the camera and who is behind it.
Students found these stories compelling and powerful. They fell in love with Quincy and Monica in Love & Basketball. They rode the highs and lows of Arthur’s and William’s quest to play pro ball in Hoop Dreams.
Students require authentic, “real world” applications of writing, and to see them written with polish. I used my own writing and Roger Ebert’s endless library of work to teach movie reviews. In Ebert’s case, his simple and direct prose style is perfect for teenagers developing their craft.
I enjoy participating in the writing process, too, and am proud of a Saturday Night Fever review a student inspired me to write.
I stress the concept of voice to students: how we get the ideas from our brain onto the page in a way that feels true to us. As students became more sophisticated movie watchers, their writing bloomed with personality and style. Reviews grew more confident and clear. Essays and short responses bursted with a close attention to detail and good thinking.
When I reflect on the past semester, I’m heartened by the real growth I saw in these cases.
And I saw some great movies. All that digging for movies netted in a long queue of movies “to watch” alongside the stack of books “to read” on my desk. The more movies I watched, the more movies I wanted to watch. And share with others. After all, sharing the really good stuff with others is the reason I became a teacher.
I recently finished James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work,” his book-length essay about movies. It was on my “to-read” list for a while. In the book, he scrutinizes a handful of films with his trademark precision, which then catapults him into these exacting takes on race, gender and sexuality. I came away inspired to not only look that closely at stuff, but to watch more and more.
Now, I have a lot to think about and a few more movies to add to my queue.