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A Pandemic and a Reckoning with Race: It Was an Unprecedented Year for this Oakland High School

September 23, 2021
by Rebecca Bodenheimer
Teenager in graduation gown with his family

High school has always been hard, but its challenges are now unprecedented. Peter Nicks’s new documentary, Homeroom, which began streaming on Hulu on August 12, follows a group of Oakland students as they move through their final chapter of high school. Their academic year began in 2019 before it was, of course, interrupted by the pandemic. Homeroom is the third in Nicks’s Oakland trilogy, which also includes documentaries on Highland Hospital (The Waiting Room) and Oakland’s police department (The Force), but he considers Homeroom to be “the most Oakland of the trilogy.” It features politically-minded students who organize both before and after George Floyd’s murder and adapt to the last months of their senior year in lockdown. 

Nicks is an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism and an award-winning director known for his use of cinéma vérité style. He won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for The Force in 2017, and Homeroom was a nominee for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2021. Nicks is also the executive director of the nonprofit organization Open’hood, which produces film, television, and digital storytelling projects that explore complex social issues. California spoke with Nicks about the making of Homeroom and the kids he met along the way. 

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide to follow this group of Oakland High students? Was it specifically about their fight to get cops out of schools?  

No. We knew we were going to do an education film as the third in the trilogy. We spent a bunch of time visiting different schools in Oakland, different grade levels. When we visited Oakland High, it just felt familiar. It’s right down the street from Highland [Hospital]. It felt very similar to Highland—the demographics, the relationships between the student populations, mostly kids of color, and the teachers are mostly white.

In terms of the students themselves, we cast a wide net. We knew we wanted to follow a spectrum of kids because I wanted to make a film inspired by the ’80s movies I grew up on, like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—all these films that were mainly from the perspective of white suburban kids. Anytime a kid of color would show up in there, like Long Duk Dong, they would be a caricature. But The Breakfast Club was one of the most moving films I’ve seen in its examination of the adolescent emotional world. I wanted to do that, but for kids of color, kids at Oakland High. So we were trying to find different archetypes, like the jock, the arty kid, the politician. And Denilson [the main student featured in Homeroom] was one of those archetypes. We had others, but COVID hit, and we couldn’t film anymore. That’s when we went back into our footage and realized that Denilson and his cohort of political friends had been working on this issue since day one, to get the police out of schools. Then we noticed they were still working on it on Zoom, and then George Floyd hit. So the film made itself!

We picked Denilson because he was a student director sitting on the [Oakland] school board, and we just felt that things would be revealed. And it’s a cinéma vérité: purely observational, no interviews, no narration, no text cards. The only way the audience can get context and information, expository information, is through scenes, and so we felt that he would reveal the political dimensions of Oakland, which is a very complex city with all kinds of personalities. The activism in Oakland is very fractured, and the dysfunction of the school board is hard to understand until you see it. So, that was the smartest decision that we made—if we hadn’t followed him, I don’t know what the film would have been, to be honest.

One of the things I most appreciated was the heavy presence of Latinx and Asian students as well as Black students, because it feels like in a lot of depictions of Oakland, you’re only seeing the Black/white divides, or you’re seeing Oakland as a predominantly Black city. But that’s a partial reality, especially given the fact that Latinx students are the largest group in the Oakland public school system.  

We noticed right away that the school is remarkably diverse. It’s basically one third Latinx, one third Asian, and one third Black, with a sprinkling of white kids; those white kids could be a film in itself! Historically, Oakland High was an Asian school, but over the years it changed. We were very intentional about representing kids in those different spheres.

You were doing almost everything on-site at Oakland High. Could you go into more detail about how the onset of the pandemic shifted the arc of the narrative and your filming plans?

If it weren’t for the George Floyd situation, I’m not sure how it would have panned out because that forced everybody out into the street. Prior to that, we weren’t filming anything. Thinking back on it, in those early days [of the pandemic], there was a lot of concern about the kids being siloed. Nobody was seeing anybody, and we were truly locked down. And then that slowly started changing. Some of the kids were a bit more loose and free, so we started picking opportunities to go see kids. Edgar, one of our characters, is a basketball player. He went to the park, and they put the wood boards over the hoops to prevent people from playing, but the kids were playing anyway. But a lot of this stuff was happening on Zoom; we recorded them on Zoom.

And then there was the footage of the [student-organized George Floyd] protest. We also gave them cameras, and they filmed at home—little creative solutions.

It feels very naturalistic, the fact that there are no superimposed direct interviews with the camera. You’re really getting a sense of what’s going on. 

That’s what I feel is the most impactful. There are different styles of filmmaking. You can make powerful movies with interviews, but for this feeling that you are witnessing something in a very visceral way, I think [cinéma vérité] builds empathy for people you may not be familiar with, whether it’s a police officer, a refugee, or someone who’s undocumented. If you do that in an authentic, non-judgmental way that doesn’t impose your desires as a filmmaker on it, I think the audience can develop more empathy. Humanizing doesn’t always mean it’s all positive—if you create this authentic portrait of somebody, it could mean that something negative is revealed about them as well. It’s about the honesty of it.

I loved that scene when the kids are sending in their college applications and cheering when they get confirmation that they’ve been submitted. They face setbacks, like the first time the school board votes down the proposal to remove the police from Oakland schools, and they feel betrayed. But the movie still feels upbeat because they persevered.

They achieved their goal. I think it’s also a recognition that they are our future. They face a lot of loss—you dream about graduating, walking across the stage, going to your prom. So that scene where you see them celebrating getting into college underscores what they lost—that was one of the last moments that was normal for them. The fact that they rose out of that loss and found their voice is such a hopeful thing, because as we get older, the country is going to be in their hands. I think that’s why it resonates so much. Every generation has its moment, and I think this is a big one for this generation. It’s unprecedented. I was born in ’68, so I was a child of that [time of activism], but the Freedom Riders were 19, 20, 21 years old, and these kids are 14, 15, 16, doing some of the same stuff in organizing that [George Floyd] march.

I think that gives us a sense of hope that these kids are very engaged. We saw it with Parkland; we saw it with climate change issues and the division in our nation. Similarly to when the Civil War happened, we are poised at the precipice of the ability to do violence towards each other. We just need a catalyst. And the catalyst then was ending slavery. We’re at a point where we don’t see each other; we just see the other as someone who’s evil, and that’s a recipe for violence. The significance of this work and the reason why I do it is that in whatever small way, a film can create a framework for us being able to see each other. I think these young people recognize it, and they are political, but I think they’re also different in so many ways than adults understand.

I think one of the things that sums it up is their relationship with their sexuality, and identifying as gender non-conforming. They’re basically saying to adults, “We don’t need to identify in that [binary] way.” I think there’s something there too with the political sphere, like “don’t call me a liberal or a conservative.” I’m hoping that’s the next wave of evolution of young people. I think young people recognize the danger that we’re facing in our society in terms of one side saying, “We’re morally superior and you’re not.”

Can you give us any updates about the kids and how they’re doing?

Two of them were our summer interns. I started a [multimedia] company with [Oakland native and renowned film director] Ryan Coogler, Proximity Media, and Dwayne was our first summer intern on the non-fiction side. Denilson was our summer intern at my non-profit, Open’hood, and we just shot a music video. Goapele did an original song for Homeroom, which is played in the middle of the film, during the montage where the kids are taking graduation pictures.

Some are going to college, some are not. That was the point we were trying to make in the film that how we value our young people is kind of distorted. The metrics we use to determine the potential of a young person are screwed up. There are kids who will go to college; there are kids who will not go to college and kids who will not graduate high school. There are kids who will get great grades and not-great grades, but they all have something to say. They all have a voice and their own journey.

We’ve also unfortunately seen continuing trauma. Helen Lu, who’s in the film—her brother was killed at a party not long before we finished the film, one of many young people in Oakland who have lost their lives to gun violence. Another kid, Daniel, who had the braids, one of his friends was killed and he didn’t want to talk about it. There’s a lot of trauma these kids are holding that has been generational, for which there is no real adequate structure—otherwise known as a mental health system—to address it. A lot of those kids have undiagnosed mental health issues that then lead them to get into some trouble. We’re working on another project that really delves into the adolescent mental health system, probably beyond Oakland, because it’s a national issue. We’re trying to continue the story and tie all the threads and themes together because they can’t even be contained in a trilogy. The story of Oakland is an evolving one, and it’s one that reflects America in so many ways, its challenges and its hopes.

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