School's out

A gritty Detroit school doc filled with hard truths and some promise

May 5, 2010 at 12:00 am

Our School is a stark, unvarnished look into the classrooms of three Detroit high schools, each facing unpredictable challenges in an incredibly volatile environment. As the city shrinks and the tax base erodes, no branch of Detroit's civic body politic has suffered more, with more 80,000 pupils lost in little more than a decade.

The centerpiece here is proud, crumbling Mackenzie High School, chugging along toward certain doom, targeted on a school board hit list of closures. (The school closed in 2007). Its hallways are lined with trophy cases larded with relics of the school, and the city's, faded glory — though there are still hints of greatness. While much of the student body has already surrendered, there are many who refuse to give in, vainly fighting to raise money or gain attention, fearful of being farmed out to some other building or even another district. The defiance and spark in these kids is paired with the brave resignation on the face of the principal, who knows he's only bailing buckets of water from a swiftly sinking ship. The Mackenzie faculty never buckles, whether dealing with endless security searches or the ancient infrastructure, where even a working pencil sharpener is a commodity.

Our School is a harrowing peek at an institution and community in collapse, but it does extend some tendrils of hope. There are the patient, hearty teachers who find a way to teach not only English and math, but dance, engineering and even agriculture, as resources dry up around them. The film is devoid of the typical procession of sociologists, historians and politicians who often crowd these sorts of affairs with hyperbole and dire warnings. Of course, in the absence of such voices, there's a lack of context, and outsiders may be left confused at the details and sheer enormity of the problems plaguing the district. Maybe that scope is something people can't wrap their heads around, but the film may have been better served by a narrower focus. Basically, it's a string of snapshots; as soon as we become interested in one student, director Goldenberg has moved on to the next. In this way, perhaps the film best captures a sliver of the frustration of the teachers, parents and students who struggle every day to maintain their concentration when there just isn't enough time or energy to hear every voice in need.

Showing at the Burton Theatre (3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238), Wednesday May 5, through Sunday, May 9.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].