This film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but Judge Joe Armenio likes it anyway.
"I felt like Don Quixote on the horse…"—Stanton Elementary School principal Deanna Burney
Alan and Susan Raymond's 1993 film I am a Promise is the result of a year spent filming at an elementary school in an impoverished (and entirely African-American) Philadelphia neighborhood. The central figure in the narrative is the principal, Deanna Burney (who is white), the sort of dedicated and passionate inner-city leader that Hollywood has celebrated and caricatured often. Unlike in Hollywood, however, Mrs. Burney's efforts often turn out to be quixotic.
Facts of the Case
I am a Promise moves episodically, focusing on several children's dealings with Mrs. Burney over the course of the school year. There are, among others, Cornelius (I'm guessing on all the spellings, except for Burney's; subtitles are not provided), an intelligent but volatile eight-year-old who's been prescribed Ritalin; Nadia, the fifth-grade honor student; and the students of Mr. Coates's first-grade class, an experiment in an all-male class with an all-male teacher.
Some of the students learn more easily than others, and all have behavior problems of some sort. The dominant theme in all the vignettes is the emotional fragility of the children, most of whose families have been wrecked by drugs and poverty, and who lack a positive adult presence in their lives. A related theme is the tightrope act performed by their teachers and principal, who need to maintain both discipline and their students' emotional health at the same time.
The Raymonds (Alan is credited as photographer, editor, and producer; Susan as director and narrator) are most famous for their 1973 PBS series, An American Family, which now seems wildly ahead of its time—a "reality show" built on vérité principles, presenting seven months in the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. At a time when one of the only things conservative Americans could count on was the blandness of evening TV, the show was controversial for its portrayal of the Louds' disintegrating marriage and openly gay son.
The Raymonds have retained their leftward slant and their commitment to vérité for I am a Promise, which consists mostly of scenes observing the interactions of principal, teachers, students, and parents with a minimum of directorial intervention. There are several interview scenes, some expository narration, and one montage of neighborhood life set to vaguely hip-hoppy music, but for the most part, the style is designed to make the viewer forget that he or she is not seeing unmediated reality. (Even the children never play to the camera or acknowledge its existence in any way.) The Raymonds' commentary track expands on this philosophy, espousing their faith in the ability of the camera to reveal character, and their impatience with those who would suggest that the presence of the camera and the act of editing and selection make a mess of attempts to convey "reality." This isn't the place to rehash this abstract debate, but suffice it to say that the Raymond have used their method in this film to craft a compelling series of mini-dramas that illustrate their points about the difficulties faced by Mrs. Burney, her staff, and most affectingly, the children themselves.
At one point in the film Susan Raymond says to Mrs. Burney, referring to the violence, drug use, and broken families which surround her students, "Some people believe that no matter what you do for [the students], they can never overcome this environmental problem, this societal problem. Do you agree with that?" Of course, the principal disagrees passionately, defending the abilities of her students, as we would expect her to. I think a more interesting phrasing of the question would be: What's the major cause of the failure of inner-city schools? Is it a lack of character and leadership, or political and economic inequality? The politics of Hollywood films on this subject, for example, tend to be conservative, in that they ignore the deeply rooted structural inequality that leads to failure; they suggest that these schools could turn themselves around lickety-split by hiring Michelle Pfeiffer or Morgan Freeman to whip the kids into shape. When Raymond invites Mrs. Burney to defend her students, she seems to be casting the principal in that same heroic mold.
However, things get much more complicated at the end of the film, when it becomes clear that Mrs. Burney realizes that heroic leadership isn't enough. Her speech at the graduation ceremony for her fifth graders is focused on inequalities in school funding. She notes the disparity in spending on suburban and urban schools and says, "I say to the president, try equality, because it has not been tried." Afterward, in an emotional interview, she admits that in the absence of more substantive support, there is a limit to what she can do. The narration informs us that Mrs. Burney left the job at Stanton Elementary after that school year. Mr. Coates, the first-grade teacher, also provides a useful corrective to the conventional wisdom when he says of his students, "Before they are able to learn, they want someone to understand them…they want someone to show that they care, and they love them." The statement is borne out by the many shots of wounded-looking, anxious, fragile children that fill the film, and it should be food for thought for those who suggest that an educational focus on "self-esteem" is so much soft-hearted liberal idealism.
The DVD includes a commentary from the Raymonds and Mrs. Burney. The filmmakers are enlightening on their methods and philosophy, but the principal sounds too often like she's reading a position paper rather than giving the sort of intimate, conversational inside look that commentaries like this are supposed to provide. I was a little disappointed in the lack of where-are-they-now information, but it seems that Burney and the Raymonds have only kept in touch with a couple of the students profiled.
I am a Promise won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1994, and deservedly so. It flirts with a conventional and unenlightening narrative about heroic leadership, but ultimately refuses to provide consolation or easy answers—and is all the better for that.
I'm thinking the Raymonds should be sentenced to something for participating in the invention of reality TV back in the 1970s, but I suppose that Joe Millionaire isn't really their fault.
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