Pendarvis Harshaw and Pete Nicks sit in chairs on stage at Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre discussing the film Homeroom. (Craig Lee/Hulu)
On Wednesday night, filmmaker Pete Nicks sat next to me on stage at the Grand Lake Theatre after a screening of his new documentary, Homeroom, and got personal.
Homeroom is the third in Nicks' trilogy of films examining how people interface with public institutions, including acclaimed documentaries The Force, about the Oakland Police Department, and The Waiting Room, about the public healthcare system as shown through Highland Hospital.
Both of those films come from lived experiences, he told me. But his inspiration for completing Homeroom, about Oakland's public schools system, was especially close to home.
Nicks' daughter Karina, an OUSD student who loved art, had worked at the very theater where the screening took place. Set to graduate with the class of 2020, she had long suffered from depression. She passed unexpectedly as the production of Homeroom was getting underway.
Opening the post-screening discussion, Nicks honored his late daughter and pointed out some of Karina's friends in the audience, letting everyone know that the film is dedicated to her.
Homeroom follows the lives of students at the city's oldest pubic high school, Oakland High. It focuses in on the class of 2020, and students' split attention between their phones and their teachers. The news of President Trump's impeachment is background noise as students aim for higher scores on their SATs, and the celebration of a new year—a year the students had awaited their entire academic careers—is overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between dealing with the impacts of gentrification and participating in mass protests following the extrajudicial executions of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the students attend pep rallies, football games and parties where they dance, red cups are lifted high. They take selfies, crack jokes and discuss pop culture during lunch. They live "normal" high school lives—save for all of the historically traumatic events of last year.
Along with Nicks, onstage with me were some of those students who star in the film: recent OUSD graduates Denilson Garibo, Jessica Ramos, and Dwayne Davis; as well as another former OUSD student, the musician and filmmaker Boots Riley.
My first question to the young folks on stage was, given how they've navigated one of the most memorable years on record, what could they teach other students about healing from the trauma that the educational experience can bring?
In one way or another, they all mentioned taking agency, being involved in the decision making process, and taking action right now.
Extrapolating on that idea, Boots suggested that by simply telling your story, you're offering something that wasn't there before and inherently shifting the paradigm. Storytelling is a way to take agency and impact a wide audience, he said.
The film, executive produced by Ryan Coogler' Proximity Media and debuting on Hulu on Aug. 13, follows Boots' Sorry To Bother Youas well as Blindspotting and other productions recently made in Oakland that have reached national audiences.
Each of these stories adds to the ongoing saga of this complex town. It never gets old seeing community members, friends, and familiar faces on the big screen, just as it's always fascinating to watch recent history retold, just months removed, and sitting in a room full of people who lived through it.
Take Homeroom's chronicling of June of 2020, when a large group of students and allies marched to Mayor Libby Schaaf's house to push for defunding the police and removing police from school campuses. As the film retold the events of that evening, including clips of Denilson Garibo leading a chant in front of the mayor's house, Mayor Schaaf sat watching from a seat in front of me.
When the scene outside her house filled the theater's large screen, she kind of threw her arms up, palms toward the sky, in a bit of playful gesture of surrender.
By focusing on the battle to remove the police from schools—a presence that students say causes them to be mentally triggered—Homeroom gives voice to those pushing toward a healthier environment at public schools.
And in that, the reason Nicks chose to do a trilogy on a hospital, a police force, and a public school becomes very apparent.
Before the conclusion of the panel discussion, Pete Nicks explicitly told the audience that he believes the problems in our society are interconnected, and you can't fix one without fixing the other. Most importantly, you can't fix anything without addressing the root causes of the issue—and the best way to do that is through telling the story, in all of its nuances.
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