Peter Nicks’s Homeroom, which is now streaming on Hulu, is the third entry in the director’s “Oakland Trilogy,” which began in 2012 with the healthcare-centered The Waiting Room and reached its midpoint with 2017’s The Force, a close-up view of the Oakland police. Homeroom’s focus is on Oakland High School’s class of 2020, but this, too, is a film about policing, among other things, because the students at the film’s center — bright, political, vocal — want to do something about Oakland Unified School District’s budget, which, we’re told, allocates millions of dollars to Oakland High’s police force, the only such force in Alameda County. Meanwhile, the school board is proposing cuts to the services that the students — particularly the students represented on the board of OUSD — feel that they actually need.
That’s how it starts. What we know that the students don’t yet know, but will learn, is that the world at large is the cusp of multiple avenues of change. They don’t know yet that their school year will end with a disconcerting pivot to virtual schooling, that they’ll be deprived of prom and other capstone social events of a typical senior year — and that the issues they’ve been bringing to the table regarding policing are about to become even more relevant to a broader populace than they could have predicted.
Homeroom offers a solid, if not consistently incisive, view of young people coming into themselves and their political identities in the midst of a tumultuous, unpredictable year — a year in which their political engagement features as a distinct, consistent through-line. Nicks’s approach is observational, a mix of classroom scenes, shooting the shit, and meetings, with touches of social media and room made for the less spectacular aspects of life as a teenager: the minor embarrassments, the jokes, the need for attention. At its best, it’s steeped in a sense of discourse; it allows that young people have discourse, that they are not the avatars of slipping social and political mores that many would have us believe, but, rather, thinking, feeling, engaged, concerned citizens, people whose politics are immediately informed by their experiences, which in this community include the experience of being non-white, undocumented, or otherwise forced to live with the sense that with so many police around, there’s a target on some peoples’ backs.
Some of Homeroom’s finer moments let these conversations play out in what feels closer to real-time; Nicks clearly had a lot of material to work with. Even the comparatively thorough scenes — people comparing SAT scores; a classroom conversation about Shakespeare, code-slipping, and whether politics has any place in the classroom at all — bear the marks of their condensation. It has a way of draining the students’ ideas of their specifics while announcing, and reiterating, that they have ideas. Scenes of the students talking through some of the resources that ought to be getting funded, instead of the school’s police force, are oddly curtailed, a little too explicitly bullet-pointed. What are these services we hear glancing references to, the resources for ESL students that are apparently on the chopping block, for example? We only get to see and hear so much, as if, the film is saying, what matters most is the passion in itself: what matters is that the students are aware of the structures at play in their lives, aware of what matters — even if the film itself feels less interested in really rooting out the substance of how and why the students feel these things matter.
This is part of what results from Nicks’ approach, which, in being observational, rather than predicated on interviews with these students, means that they aren’t being asked questions from behind the camera. The best observational documentaries manage to make the filmmakers’ curiosities about their subjects feel like a genuine, palpable curiosity, rather than like the movies are taking the complexities of their subjects for granted. Homeroom, on the other hand, is better at being a movie about intergenerational conflict, a battle between the wills of young people and the people in power.
The OUSD meetings, in which the students’ proposals to eliminate police from the district are discussed, are effective for letting us see this divide in action. The adults promise (and promise, and promise) and make excuses, and invent barriers, all the while taking care to give off a sense of their openness to listening. When one such meeting results in an unfavorable outcome, one student, Denilson Garibo — Homeroom’s closest thing to a main character — reveals that he’s undocumented, that this is what’s at stake for him in this decision. Then, he turns to the non-white adults on the board and calls them, specifically, out for not understanding what the community is asking of them. It’s a bold move — the best moment in a movie that too often feels vague in its approach to these young people as individuals, facing individual pressures, with needs and personalities of their own. Nicks tries to make up for that by over-relying on social media posts, but even these prove brief, glancing, as if the point is merely to say that social media is what young people use to be informed, to communicate these passions and ideas to each other while getting an outlook on the world. Well, sure. Duh.
Homeroom’s power in is allowing us — encouraging us — to hear these students out for themselves, bearing witness to political identities in the midst of their formation, still molten and moldable and all the more useful to see for that fact. It’s like an uncanny laboratory of the issues that we, from our summer 2021 perch, know is coming — as if the school, and the students debates over the allocation of funding toward police, were a harbinger of the broader debates about defunding the police that the country is about to face. Public schools are, to be sure, a microcosm of their communities.
And when the inevitable comes, and school shuts down, and George Floyd’s murder pushes people into the streets, the effect, rather than making the students look prescient, is to argue for their place on a continuum. As one young man says, the Black Panthers — so essential to Oakland’s political legacy — were similarly invested in matters of education policing. This, too, feels like a conversation in the film that gets cut short — a thing included in the film to remind the audience of its truth, rather than a chance to explore what the students onscreen will do with it, how they’ll process it, at all. The film’s intentions are admirable. Moments like these make you wish they’d been put to more incisive use.