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Regional Interests

Now Playing! Oakland High Seniors Meet, Greet the Moment in ‘Homeroom’

If you’re lucky, childhood and adolescence provide protection from the anxieties and traumas of adulthood. Fortunate sons and daughters in well-off suburbs are better insulated, typically, than city kids growing up cheek to jowl with sooty, smudged reality. One consequence is that the latter group are less apathetic.

In Homeroom, East Bay filmmaker Peter Nicks’ verité portrait of the disorienting and reorienting senior year of Oakland High School’s class of 2020, we are presented with a cadre of determined urban teens. Confronted with the budget-cutting condescension of the Oakland Unified School District and the ineffectual platitudes of Mayor Libby Schaaf (“I want you to know your power and claim it”), they keep organizing, speechifying and holding their ground.

By “they” I primarily mean Denilson Garibo, one of two student board directors on the OUSD Board of Education. Lots of kids sign up for organizations and activities to pad their college applications; Garibo is a committed activist in the forefront of the community campaign to remove Oakland cops from schools and redirect that money to student programs on the chopping block.

Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo in ‘Homeroom.’ (Courtesy Hulu, LLC)

When the board votes down the proposal, Garibo promises to fight on, but we all know how rare it is to change the system—even in Oakland, where it seems everyone is perpetually clamoring for improvement. Nicks is a firsthand observer; he piercingly exposed the power that troubled, intractable Oakland institutions have on everyday people, and the struggle of individuals to transform those entities, in The Waiting Room (about Highland Hospital) and The Force (about the Oakland Police Department). Hulu has acquired streaming rights to those exceptionally crafted documentaries, which portray America’s big-city challenges with fairness as well as unexpected emotion.

Homeroom is briefly derailed at the one-hour mark, along with Oakland High’s senior class, by COVID-19. Sure, there’s ample footage of the students in isolation—their’s is the Facetime, Instagram, smartphone generation on steroids—but it’s as uninspiring as your shelter-in-place videos and Zoom calls. (The film didn’t acknowledge or include parents before the pandemic, so we don’t miss them during the pandemic hiatus.)

What sets the Oakland High students, and Homeroom, back on track, is the rising tide of protests propelling everyone into the streets following the murder of George Floyd. One of the film’s strengths, thanks to some succinct segments early on that reveal the students’ adverse experiences with police, is to convey that the community’s response (and the Black Lives Matter movement) didn’t come out of nowhere but was an expression (and explosion) of pent-up anger and frustration.

Still from ‘Homeroom.’ (Courtesy Hulu, LLC)

Skill and luck are required to impart a shape and structure to verité docs, and Homeroom benefits from a second vote by the Oakland Unified School District board—shocked into action by Floyd’s killing and so many others—on the issue of cops in schools. Nicks also bookends his film with what might sound trivial by comparison, that is, a student rap.

Early in the film, the lad stumbles over his words onstage prior to an assembly, coming off like a glib and typically self-conscious adolescent. But when he delivers the poem to his family at the graduation celebration in his concrete backyard, it’s a moving assertion of both Hispanic identity and creative pride. Nicks leaves us with a resounding reminder that Joe Strummer was unquestionably right: The future is unwritten.

‘Homeroom’ opens Aug. 12 at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, San Francisco’s AMC Kabuki 8 and is now streaming on Hulu.

Copyright 2021 KQED