Last weekend in particular was exciting for me – a group of students and I took several busses to head to the North Side of Pittsburgh. Our task for the day? Volunteer with the Pittsburgh Project. Now, this non-profit is a pretty cool one with multiple volunteer opportunities throughout the year. You can do anything from tutoring to fixing houses.
Our job for the day would be urban farming. If you’re like me, you’re going, What?
I literally spent a day with other volunteers working in a baseball field that had been converted into a miniature farm. In a Sparknotes style summary: there are crops and flowers that are sold to local businesses as well as at a local farmer’s market. During the year locals are actually encouraged to take part in activities as well, in the hopes of keeping kids in particular from joining gangs or turning to drugs.
That, actually, was one spooky part of the experience. Being told that you’re in one of the most crime-ridden areas of Pittsburgh as you’re peacefully farming and weeding, surrounded by quiet roads, chirping birds, and at least ten species of insects? Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe that sensation.
The nice thing about this project was that it gave me the chance to work in the open air and to talk to a leader who was committed to making a difference long term, and going wherever he saw a problem – not just where he saw money to get out of the problem.(For more info, go here: http://www.pittsburghproject.org/)
On the way back to campus, I actually got to thinking about what I was told and about how media often presents problems and non-profits. In particular, movies seem to manage to butcher attempts to tell an activism type of story more often than not. So, for today, I have three movies to mention that contributed – or didn’t – to an image of activism.
Blood Diamond – This 2006 drama film was, admittedly, just that: a drama film with an actor people love to watch because he entertains them (and hey: I like DeCaprio, too!). The title alone refers to a massive issue – diamonds mined in Africa and sold to provide the money that fuels wars and conflicts throughout the continent, while providing a profit to the warlords and to global companies.I’m not saying this is a terrible movie – its brutal depictions have to be given credit. However, two things that bother me.
One, when a father notices his son among the armies, he convinces him to come home. I can say from my own activism experience, it’s not that simple. These children are kidnapped, brutalized, threatened to be killed if they ever leave, and are brainwashed – some to the point that if they aren’t surrounded by violence and blood, they get headaches. Two: honestly, when did this movie do anything to convince us as Americans we can do anything from where we are in our lives?
I see this movie as pure entertainment. Maybe it raised some awareness on the issue, but considering it was a violent movie, it probably only reached a certain audience – and not necessarily one that cared enough to learn from it and make a difference. In fact, to prove this point: http://www.diamondvues.com/2006/12/blood_diamond_film_has_little.html
This movie’s activism impact gets a D in my book. Kudos to anyone who went against the majority reaction in this case.
Take The Lead – Released the same year as Blood Diamond, this movie scores a little higher in my books. This movie acknowledges another true situation – high school students in New York struggling to make a living. Some live alone; some live with single parents or with sick parents who can’t maintain a job. Antonio Banderas plays a ballroom dance instructor, Pierre Dulaine, who offers to teach the children in detention ballroom dancing.
Needless to say, one thing that stands out in this movie is the contrasts. You have a well-to-do suit wearing instructor alongside teenagers living in the cheapest housing possible. Scenes cutting from one character to another in their personal lives reminds viewers exactly what these people are dealing with. If anything, it becomes touching to see these kids bonding as they continue to dance, eventually going on to a competition.
Pierre Dulaine in real life began Dancing Classrooms to help 5th graders, giving young children support early in life rather than later. Take The Lead did in fact raise a decent bit of awareness and accelerated the expansion process for this project, so it accomplished much more than Blood Diamond.
Still, I just can’t give this a stamp of approval above a B. Somehow to me I feel that the issues these children faced were glazed over. They were acknowledged but not explored, and the ending made it feel like their lives were fixed and perfect when in fact these issues never go away. This movie was a worthy attempt, but not the best.
Freedom Writers – There is a reason this movie makes my top ten favorites. Released a year after the other two films I mentioned, Freedom Writers got much deeper into the lives of the characters and what they faced during the gang wars in the 1990s. Death for these kids became mundane. Gang life was their only life, and one that was almost impossible to escape and continuously affected their studies. It took one teacher months to begin to reach her students, and the issues they faced never ended. Yet it still created a hopeful feeling among the dread and depression.
This movie gets brownie points for bringing in original students for cameos and using testimony from the original people to construct the story as closely to real as possible. Based on a true story may mean that some things have been fictionalized, but this is one movie that did this respectfully. The main plot points in this movie really did happen, and every one of them is emotional, inspiring, and humbling.This film’s ending explains that a book with journal entries from the students was published and a community created to help re-create this classroom scenario to help other students. That, to me, sets this movie above the others. It used real words from real people to re-create true events. It acknowledged the depth of the issues these kids faced in gang life and dealing with racism. And it credited a non-profit that continues its work today. Its original style when dealing with a topic movies often butcher gets this film an A and a link shout-out: http://www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/
Of course, as always, you’re not required to agree with me; only to give everything a fair chance. In this case, just remember: a movie, even the good ones, can only educate you so much. It’s always worth getting out there to do your own research and some volunteering of your own.