You may wonder about how the story of Hulu documentary film “Homeroom” could have been different if it had not been for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During its first half, the documentary effortlessly immerses us into the lives and activities of a bunch of politically engaged students at the Oakland High school during 2019, and we cannot help but reflect on how their world would soon be turned upside down in the very next year. Things surely became quite different for them, and that is why it is often poignant to see how they kept going nonetheless while remaining politically active as before.
Often reminiscent of the recent documentaries of Frederick Wiseman such as “City Hall” (2020), the documentary, which is the final chapter of Peter Nicks’ Oakland trilogy following “The Waiting Room” (2012) and “The Force” (2017), simply presents what Nicks and his cinematographer/co-producer/co-writer Sean Havey closely and vividly captured on the camera inside the Oakland High School in Oakland, California. We see a number of various moments unfolded here and there inside the school, and then the documentary gradually comes to revolves around several senior students quite willing to voice the opinions of them and many other students on a certain public issue in the city.
That public issue in question was the presence of police officers in the schools in the city, and many students and parents strongly demanded the removal of those police officers from the schools for their understandable concerns. Some of those city administrators flatly argued that the schools need police officers for safety, but most of students and parents protested that police officers do not make the schools safe at all, and their arguments took my mind back to how police officers did not help at all during that recent tragic shooting incident in Texas.
In case of Denilson Garibo, a student governing board representative who slowly becomes the unassuming center of the documentary thanks to his natural charisma and spirit, he was certainly passionate about this issue, and he and his fellow student representative Mica Smith-Dahl tried their best at the public school administration board meeting, but their opinions did not draw much attention from the adult board members. When the board eventually decided to let police officers inside the schools as before, Garibo and Smith-Dahl expressed their bitter disappointment and frustration, but, again, nobody in the board paid any particular attention to their thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile, time passes by as usual for them and other students at their school. A brief scene shows the joy and excitement of the 2019 homecoming day of the school, and then we look at a number of students preparing for their little musical performance to be held in early 2020. Garibo and many of his friends are now focusing on their college application, and they are certainly looking forward to taking the first step toward their upcoming adulthood. When they hear about the first news about COVID-19, they are not particularly concerned, but we cannot help but notice a few students wearing mask just in case.
Of course, the situation subsequently became pretty bad for them and many others in city as the whole country was swept by the first wave of COVID-19. Their school was closed as demanded, and a number of online videos show how they struggled with the following lockdown day by day. At one point, the camera looks around the empty rooms and corridors of their school, and that makes a striking contrast to all those lively moments shown to us during the first half of the documentary.
However, Garibo and his friends including Dwayne Davis were not daunted about this at all as paying more attention to current social issues. When the tragic death of George Floyd sparked massive public protests in many American cities including Oakland, they did not hesitate at all to participate in a big protest in the city, and their protest later culminated to where they and many others showed a sign of solidarity in front of the residence of the mayor of Oakland.
In the end, there came a small but significant change for them and many other students in the city. Not long after their protest, several adult members of the school administration board came to change their positions, and that subsequently led to the agreement on the removal of police officers from the schools in the city. That was certainly a progress to be celebrated by Garibo and many other students, though they were still limited a lot by the ongoing pandemic as later reflected by their online graduation ceremony.
To be frank with you, I wish it showed more of their activities inside and outside the school, but “Homeroom”, which won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award when it was premiered at the Sundance documentary early in last year, is still excellent enough to recommend, and I appreciate how it indirectly resonates with Nicks’ previous documentary “The Force”, which is incidentally about the deeply flawed aspects of the Oakland Police (I have not watched yet “The Waiting Room”, which looks into the daily matters inside one hospital of Oakland). Sometimes I have serious doubts about our future, but the documentary reminds me that, at least, there is still lots of hope and energy from many young people out there, and I can only hope that they will be more supported and encouraged instead of being ignored and blocked.