By Sam Allard
In James Baldwin’s 1961 essay collection, “Nobody Knows My Name,” the author insisted black parents sent their children to white schools in the South not out of ideals or convictions.
“They want the child to receive the education which will allow him to defeat, possibly escape, and, not impossibly, help one day abolish the stifling environment in which they see, daily, so many children perish” he wrote.
The sentiment is echoed in “Facing Forward” Laura Paglin’s new documentary about a charter school on Cleveland’s east side (sponsored by City News), showing at the 35th annual Cleveland International Film Festival.
Entrepreneurship Preparatory School is not a white school, but parents send their children there with a familiar anthem: “Don’t be like us, be better than us.” And even though the academic environment is unusually strict – the school day is 10 hours long; students aren’t allowed to talk in the hallway; dress code is mercilessly enforced – it beats the chaos of the public school system.
Marshall Emerson III, E-Prep’s principal and co-founder, believes that his version of education is necessary to ensure the success of his students, and to prevent the activities outside of school which so often derail urban African-Americans.
Though the students struggle, at first, with E-Prep’s stringent behavior policies, they come to respect and admire the school’s commitment to their achievements. Oddly enough, it’s the parents, not the students, who find it hardest to endure.
“They buy into it, and want the dream,” Emerson says in a candid interview. “But they don’t want to hear about the negatives, about their child’s misbehavior. They want to drop their child off and say: fix it. Make my child the dream.”
The boiling tensions between the harsh demands of the school and the expectations from the home become the film’s central conflict, told through the eyes of Tyree, a seventh-grade troublemaker with a desire to succeed.
Tyree’s mom wants the best for him, but she can’t deal with things like petty detentions – “you drop a pencil, you get a detention,” Tyree’s mother says in one of her bouts of frustration. Tyree truly sees the benefits of E-Prep when, for two weeks, his mother sends him to a public school.
E-Prep’s discipline would seem excessive were it not for the finesse of Paglin’s direction, who neutrally and incrementally guides the viewer toward a deeper understanding of the school’s methods and mission. She expertly juxtaposes the academic scenes with shots of grim decaying storefronts in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the film seems to ask whether or not children like Tyree really can succeed in an environment with so much pressure. Are urban youths becoming victimized in yet another way?
Emerson and his staff should be commended for their efforts; as should Paglin, for continuing to push the issue of education into the center of the American political discussion.