Public education is such a hot topic that it's easy to lose sight of the students themselves amid all the din about teachers' pay and unions and standardized tests and No Child Left Behind. Hollywood has made its share of movies about the public classroom experience, but most look manufactured. The acclaimed documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " was skewed by heavy-handed pro-charter-schools advocacy.
There's certainly advocacy in the new documentary "To Be Heard," but it's of a more generalized sort. The movie follows three students from a public high school in the South Bronx, often described as the poorest district in America. Karina, Anthony, and Pearl are participating in a radical poetry workshop called Power Writing that strives to free the students to, in effect, control their own fates. The film opens with the on-screen admonition: "If you don't learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you."
The life stories of these three African-American students – who call themselves the "tripod" because they know they need each other to achieve balance – would appear at first to have already been written.
Karina lives with her single mother and her seven siblings, for whom she often acts as a surrogate mom. Although on camera the mother seems friendly enough, she has a history of physically abusing Karina.
Anthony, whose father is in prison for drug dealing, lives with his single mother and falls in and out of trouble at school, at one point facing expulsion for threatening a campus official.
Pearl, grossly overweight, seems to have a happier home life but bemoans being "stuck in the ghetto." The most resolutely upbeat of the "tripod," she wants to parlay her writing skills into a scholarship at a top-flight university like Sarah Lawrence, which she imagines as an Edenic haven for nascent poets.
The poetry workshop represents a source of salvation for each of these kids – a chance to indeed write their own life story. Roland Legiardi-Laura, one of the three workshop teachers (and a codirector, along with Edwin Martinez and Oscar winner Deborah Shaffer, of the film) tells the students, "You're in this room to teach yourselves how to be heard in the world." I thought his emphasis on using vocabulary as a "weapon" was too crassly utilitarian – like those teachers who emphasize learning as a way to earn more money – but the students don't need much coaxing when it comes to weaponizing their lingo.
Onstage at poetry jams, or even in class, they spout their power poetry with a vehemence that lets you know they are speaking from the heart – and the gut. Anthony, who is the most troubled of the three students as well as the most gifted, says, "I can't live without poetry; poetry is like rehab," and he means it literally. When he places as a finalist in one of the jams, he pumps his fist and does a corkscrew leap high into the air.
Is it too romantic to believe that expressing yourself as a poet can rewrite your life? The filmmakers of "To Be Heard," which was shot over a period of four years, are clear-eyed enough to see that life is not so simple. Anthony, for example, spends time in prison for having had sex with a minor (he claims he was tricked). His possibilities for personal redemption are by no means clear.
It would be glib to assume that the life difficulties of these students are in every case directly linked to their poverty and upbringing. There is more to it than that. But it's impossible to watch Anthony, so bright and spirited, without raging against the forces that hold him back. And, singular as he is, he is also all too representative of an entire generation of kids in similar straits.
Cuts for public education, especially in the arts, are in the ascendant. It would be useful if all those budget-slashing politicians who never put their heads inside a classroom in the South Bronx took a look at "To Be Heard."
In the end, the power poetry workshops, as the teachers are first to admit, are not about creating Shakespeares. They are about survival. "If you can't control language in this world, you go to prison," says Legiardi-Laura, and, from where he stands, he's got a point. Grade: A- (Unrated.)