It seems that everyone from bloggers to university professors is hyped up over the movie Django Unchained and with good reason. ANY movie about enslavement – fictional or not – is likely to arouse our fears, anger and a wellspring of emotions. However, commentary concerning this movie is now so saturated, and at times confused, that I will not contribute to the redundancy. Besides, when we give such overwhelming attention to one thing, we tend to miss opportunities to shed light on others.
Therefore I will resist my temptation to join the ever-increasing chorus of Django critics or supporters, and instead direct your attention to a movie called “Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter. Django stirred national debate around slavery and how Hollywood portrays it. Given my personal background and interests, this is obviously a discussion I deem important. What excites me about “Won’t Back Down,” (released in September of 2012) however, is its focus on an equally important and contentious issue in current times….America’s failing public schools.
Sure, scores of scholars and critics performed overly-intellectual dissections of the movie (as is the case with Django). Some say the movie unfairly attacks teacher’s unions, others believe it mischaracterizes teachers, and some view it as covert support for charter schools. I’ll leave such debates to far more qualified people. I am much more concerned with the issues it raises.
The movie tells the story of two mothers, a white working-class woman ( Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a daughter suffering from dyslexia and a Black teacher (Viola Davis) whose son performs and behaves poorly in class. The story has a few sub-plots, but centers on these mother’s relentless efforts to create a better elementary school education for their children and the acrimonious battles they face with teachers, the teacher’s union, and the entire Pittsburgh public school bureaucracy as a result. As a former public schoolteacher and co-founder of a middle school in New York City, I relate entirely. And we all should. Education is a tie that binds us all. Not every American citizen had an accountant, attorney, or personal trainer, but we all had or have teachers.
Public education in theory is supposed to be the great equalizer of our society. It is supposed to level the playing field and “close the gap” between the haves and have nots by providing a foundation of skills, habits, and attitudes that produce empowered leaders and problem-solvers for the future regardless of race, religion or income. In practice, public education is merely a microcosm of larger society, segregated, outdated, and rife with challenges and seemingly insurmountable challenges. And while some believe President Obama’s place of birth or Jay Z and Beyonce’s daughter to be significant issues, public education is perhaps one of the most important civil rights issues facing American citizens today (with the racist and class-biased prison industrial complex arguably running a close second). Won’t Back Down reminds us of just how central a quality education is, and how shamefully difficult it is for parents to procure.
At a curious time when people fight over Jordan’s sneakers, become outraged over a fictional Black movie character, or almost come to blows debating who the greatest rap artist is, the chronically failing public schools in our neighborhoods is an issue around which we should really display outrage. The central issue has less to do with firing teachers, or bad-mouthing unions, and more to do with ensuring that all children in this country have access to and receive a solid education. The reality is staggering. In the most outrageous cases, The School to Prison Pipeline leads to Black and Latino boys getting handcuffed and taken to their local precinct for such “egregious” violations as violating the dress code, using inappropriate language or bringing scissors to school; As many as 50-60% of Black and Latino students in America don’t graduate high school; many graduate with sub par reading, computation and writing proficiency; others have little to no exposure to technology or leadership. Many are unfamiliar with their fundamental constitutional rights, cannot identify counties and continents on a map, or in the worse cases, drop out and become prime candidates for gangs, drug trafficking, incarceration or any number of unhealthy outcomes.
Do we want a generation of “nothin’ muffins,” or of leaders and problem-solvers? If so, we must give Django a rest, begin organizing and like the parents in the movie, mount a movement to demand and ultimately create educational alternatives that work for our children.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is aprofessional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.