Teens and race


Whether rich and privileged or struggling and living on the margins, one of the principal ways that teens cope with the difficulties of a life in the process of defining itself is . . . they don’t. Instead they lash out in anger; they shut down when they should open up; they walk away when they should stay. Add in the issue of race, and the pot boils over, scalding hot.

In four new films, we see all this and more as a handful of Sundance filmmakers look at the life of contemporary teens in the U.S. through the prism of the high school experience and race. Using documentary and dramatic narratives, plumbing difficult and distinctive stories, the world the filmmakers give us is at once shadowed by the problems of the past and surprisingly saturated by hope for a better day. That is, of course, if you agree with the premise that a better day includes setting aside our racial differences, and as becomes apparent in the cinematic tutorial at Sundance, we are a long way from consensus on that front.

It was impossible to watch these films -- from the powerful cinematic expression of “Push” to the incisive documentary storytelling of “Prom Night in Mississippi” -- over the last few days without all the emotion of the inauguration of the country’s first African American president vibrating in the air around them. Barack Obama’s name and his mantra of change were often invoked as the films were introduced, providing an inescapable layer of context. If you are in the camp of those who believe that film more often reflects rather than predicts social crosscurrents -- and I am -- the voices coming out of here suggest that we are already a country with a younger generation very much impatient for that change.


Consider Jessica Shivers in “Prom Night in Mississippi.” She is a high school senior in the small Southern town of Charleston, Miss., population 2,300. She is fiery, beautiful and on the lower end of the economic scale. That she is white is a defining characteristic in writer-director Paul Saltzman’s telling documentary about the long tentacles of race that still wrap themselves around us.

Jessica’s boyfriend is also white; many of her friends are not. Her stepfather would beat her for her choice of friends, but he’s in prison, so it is a nonissue for now. She struggles to find after-school jobs -- discriminated against by some white employers in her small town because it is known that she has African American friends. The local cops have pulled them over when they’re riding in the car together. We meet Jessica and others in her senior class only because actor Morgan Freeman lives in Charleston and has been troubled by the high school’s practice of separate, segregated proms. Given that court-ordered desegregation of schools began in 1954, “Prom Night” is a reminder of the perception versus reality clash of the racial divide circa 2009.

Freeman first offers to pay for the event in 1997 if the school board members will agree to integrate the prom -- they decline. After talking to the students, he offers again in 2008 -- this time the board accepts. Through interviews with students, their parents and teachers, what emerges is a case study on racial attitudes that is as candid as it is revealing.

A white father talks of the devastation he feels that his daughter is dating an African American boy; the boy’s parents talk of their concerns too, though their fears are less abstract -- it is the violence they worry he might face for dating a white girl. The couple, Heather and Jeremy, are unfazed; as with most of their classmates, race is not an issue. They see racism as an inherited trait that stopped with their parents, one that doesn’t extend to them or their friends.

Saltzman’s camera catches the unspoken ambivalence in the body language of school officials as they discuss the logistics of integrating the prom. Though he tries for balance, he is not helped by the decision of most of the white parents who oppose the change not to participate in the film. Heather’s father, a sincere and sad Glen Sumner, is the lone white voice struggling to explain why his resistance to his daughter’s boyfriend isn’t rooted in racism.

We watch tensions, both profound and ordinary, rise as prom night approaches -- Who will show up? What will they wear? Is extra security needed? Then too there is the matter of the whites-only prom that is organized by dissenting families and the rising pressure on their kids to attend that one too.


Like teenagers everywhere, the Charleston high school seniors are awash in bravado, rebellion, optimism and naivete. Hopefully Saltzman will return to Charleston, say for the fifth- or 10th-year class reunion, to see how the next chapter has played out for them.

That this generation intends to shake off what it sees as the fear, prejudice and ignorance of its parents is a theme echoed again in Cruz Angeles’ sweet drama “Don’t Let Me Drown.”

Angeles’ feature, which he co-wrote with Maria Topete, drops Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and Stephanie (Gleendilys Inoa) into the swirling aftermath of 9/11: Stef lost a sister when the Twin Towers fell, and Lalo’s dad, one of the workers clearing the site, spends his days covered in the ash left behind.

Everywhere, nerves are raw. For Stef and Lalo, there are racial tensions as well, with Angeles reminding us that the complex story of race in this country is not just told in black and white. Lalo’s of Mexican descent, Stef’s Dominican, and both families have issues with their relationship. Emotions, the normal ones high school kids have, are intensified by the events around them, and the clash over race becomes an outlet for the huge reservoir of pain and anger the adults don’t know what to do with. Lingering unanswered in “Don’t Let Me Drown” is whether, if ever, race will stop being the river our anger runs though.

When filmmakers are at their best, they seduce us to dive into the deep end of introspection -- to examine who we are and where we are collectively and individually, socially and philosophically. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Damien Paul have done that with chilling force in “Push,” based on the novel by Sapphire.

In Precious Jones, an obese, abused black teenager, pregnant for the second time with her father’s child and played with unsentimental pain by Gabourey Sidibe, we see the result of our failed educational and social systems, the damage inflicted by ignorance and poverty. And perhaps most important, the soul-killing nature of life in the Harlem ghetto passed to child from mother -- in this case the actress Mo’Nique’s devastating portrait of an unhinged mind imprinted by rage, prejudice and resentment.


Precious spends her days dodging the stream of bitter verbal invective and a sizable frying pan hurled with equal strength by her mother. She disappears upstairs and into a fantasy world of celebrity and fame, where she is the star. The film briefly moves between the black night of her life and the bright sparkle of her dreams, until she learns to cope and shape a reality she can actually live with.

In an ode to the power of words and those who teach us how to understand them, change begins when Precious finds herself at an alternative high school and is swept up by a teacher there. The film, which argues that the seemingly incontrovertible grip of poverty on the underclass can be reversed through intervention and education, is as hopeful as it is dark, and it is very, very dark.

Again, the power of family to shape attitudes and emotions of teenagers is examined in writer-director Emily Abt’s dramatic feature “Toe to Toe,” though from the relative heights of a competitive, upper-class Washington, D.C., prep school.

Louisa Krause is Jesse, a troubled blond teen temptress with a high-profile mother, an international activist who fails to see her own daughter’s distress. Sonequa Martin is the serious African American senior Tosha, who has an unblinking eye set on Princeton and a grandmother determined that she break barriers. Abt lets racial stereotypes face off on the lacrosse field, in the social swirl of the school and within the confines of family dynamics and economics.

Ultimately the film is as much about the nearly insatiable need all teenagers have for love and acceptance -- taking it wherever they can find it, no matter how destructive that choice may be. Race is the undertow pulling the narrative along, with both Jesse and Tosha given a choice between compassion and empathy or hate and revenge.

At Sundance, these filmmakers offer up happy endings for their difficult stories. Based on audience reaction and the talk on the festival circuit, the films, especially “Push” and “Prom Night,” were embraced both for their relevance and as compelling entertainment, though box-office potential is another measuring stick entirely and will determine what sort of life they have beyond here. Last year Paramount Vantage snapped up the rights to the documentary “American Teen” at Sundance in a move to put more serious teenage fare into the marketplace. It made just under a million dollars at the box office, not the sort of run to fuel acquisition fever.


Still, if movies are truly reflective of society at large, when it comes to closing the racial divide, the work coming out of Sundance this year suggests that the generation emerging from high schools today may well be the one to write a different ending.