By: Carlos Moreno
The best films—truly, the best forms of any art—succeed when they act as both window and mirror, offering a glimpse into another world while also requiring some form of reflection from the viewer. When this is achieved, we as viewers see what’s before us on screen, but we also get a glimpse into who we are ourselves. And, as with all good movies and art forms, we are left with questions; some small and some which take time to ponder, sort, and—if possible—answer.
I was reminded of this truth recently while watching American Son, a Netflix film about a young Black high school senior attempting to navigate the challenges of becoming an adult. The film stars Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as a mixed-race couple—reprising their roles from the original Broadway run of Christopher Demos-Brown’s play of the same name.
The entire movie takes place well before dawn in a Florida police station, just as the play did. Kendra—played brilliantly by Washington—has gone to seek information about her missing son. Initially, her only interaction is with the only officer on duty, a white rookie. Later, her estranged husband (played by Pasquale) and a veteran Black police officer round out the cast. Jamal, the son, never makes an appearance. Kendra and Scott, though no longer together, have labored mightily to give their son every advantage—prep school, music lessons, coaching, travel, a car. But, despite their best efforts, they have communication problems, a central theme in the movie that plagues all characters, both those we see and those we never do. We watch as they cajole, threaten, appeal, and plead for information about their son, first from the rookie officer and later from the veteran detective. Eventually, we (and they) learn how a simple traffic stop turned into chaos and tragedy. And we learn that sometimes no matter what advantages we provide our children, those advantages remain grossly inadequate for navigating the complexities of the real world.
I watched American Son through the lens of a former teacher and principal in a nontraditional high school serving mostly economically disadvantaged Black and Brown students. I watched it as a citizen and community member. I watched it as the Black father of a high school daughter.
As mentioned previously, Kendra and Scott’s son Jamal attended a prep school. But as I watched the film, one of my deepest reflections had to do with the questions about what our schools are actually doing to “prep” all young people, and particularly Black and Brown young people, to survive and thrive in a society that is struggling to sort out its own legacy of racism and oppression. Despite their best intentions, and the resources made available to them, one wonders whether Jamal’s teachers truly knew him deeply. Did they possess the insights required to understand and develop the essential competencies necessary for helping a young Black man deal with racism in a “white man’s world”? Am I naïve to think that, if Jamal was a student at a school that was relentlessly student-centered and authentically cared for its students, might he have been better counseled to cope well in that world?
As Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning schools, I know the power of forming young people as part of an advisory of peers, forging deep interpersonal relationships with a core group of students with whom they’ll navigate their high school experience together. They are led by an Advisor (the role of a teacher in a Big Picture Learning environment), who supports their learning development and encourages them to view the world around them, reflect on their own interests and place in that world, and unapologetically chase and pursue their own passions. The primary responsibility of an advisor is to know their students—and their families—deeply and authentically. I was an advisor at a Big Picture Learning school. The relationships I forged with the students in my advisory, the community we built together, created a closeness that often mirrored the relationships that they had with their own families.
Which brings me back to Jamal. It’s no surprise to me that in the context of this film, as Kendra struggles to reach anyone on her cell phone—Jamal, her husband, anyone—she never once thinks about reaching out to people in Jamal’s life who should have had the next closest relationship with him: his teachers and coaches. Kendra had deep fears for her son, but had no one—including her husband—to speak with about them. I can easily imagine a Big Picture advisor joining her in the police station if only to provide a simple presence and caring council. Jamal’s advisor would have been that someone to talk to, as I was—in real life—for many of my students’ families who too often found themselves in situations eerily similar to those portrayed in the movie.
I’ll even take it further. Let’s imagine a scenario in which Kendra never found herself in this situation in the first place. Another key component of Big Picture Learning schools is that students spend several hours a week—every week for all four years of high school—learning outside of school in an internship based upon their interests. In their later high school years, these pursuits are often tied directly to their career interests, but earlier on they’re based upon their curiosities, their desires to explore the influences on their everyday lives. Let’s imagine a situation in which—while pursuing these curiosities—Jamal took an internship in that police station. Might Jamal have learned about dealing with racism in a different way? About understanding the nuances and subtleties of an incendiary bumper sticker? Or perhaps, the bumper sticker is something I could have imagined an Advisor of a young Black male struggling with the separation of his parents processing with Jamal and it would not solely have been on the back of the mom. What’s more, might not the police officers themselves have benefitted from learning more deeply about young people by learning with young people?
We rarely appreciate how fragile even the most accomplished of our young people are. There are hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown people in our country who, with or without Jamal’s considerable advantages, need our attention. How difficult is it to listen well—with patience, empathy, and love? How hard is it to give our fullest attention? To communicate? How difficult it is to put ourselves in our student’s places, even as they themselves struggle every day to understand what exactly those places may be?
The answer: it’s very hard. It’s very difficult. Our assumptions get challenged. We make micro-adjustments and move on. We bring new assumptions into play, layering them upon previous assumptions—an accumulation built over time, never fully informed by our individual and collective life experiences, requiring a massive unbundling just to reset and restart anew.
But that’s what it takes.
I encourage you to find time to watch the film and pursue your own reflections as a viewer, as an educator, as a coach, as a counselor to young people. As a parent. I’ve not spoiled anything by sharing with you its portrayal of an unjust society that treats young Black and Brown people differently. I’ve not ruined the viewing experience for you by sharing the film’s portrayal of the tensions between law enforcement and society at large. I’ve not divulged anything by suggesting that American Son raises more questions than answers.
Let the unbundling begin.
This blog is part of an ongoing Getting Smart series called Getting Clearer. The nature of this series and of our blog is to have a diverse set of voices and ideas to help us and our audience get clearer. Are there topics that you’re interested in #GettingClearer about? Email Editor@GettingSmart.com with “Getting Clearer” in the subject line.
For other blogs in the series, see:
For more, see:
- Leading with Love and Centering Student Voice
- A Lesson We Keep Relearning: It’s All About Relationships
- 7 Ways to Build Strong Relationships With Students
Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.
Carlos Moreno is the Co-Executive Director of Big Picture Learning. Follow Carlos on Twitter: @Carlos_Moreno06