Homeroom, the third installment in Director Peter Nicks’ trilogy about Oakland public institutions, premiered during a special community screening at the Grand Lake Theatre on August 12.
The documentary film follows high school seniors during the crisis-filled 2019-2020 school year.
Nicks also directed The Waiting Room in 2012, focusing on Highland Hospital’s emergency room, and then The Force in 2017, focusing on Oakland’s police department. Thanks in part to Homeroom’s strong showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, all three movies are now available on Hulu. Homeroom is executive produced by Oakland’s own Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker behind Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther.
For his third film about the Town, the Emmy award-winning filmmaker Nicks said that he wanted to create an “immersive, emotional experience to change the way you see the world around you.” Nicks also said that he wanted to create a documentary version of John Hughes’ classic coming of age film, The Breakfast Club, but set in the historically under-resourced Oakland Unified School District.
The final product captures the teenage subjects’ journey through an unprecedented nine months, and succeeds in making it easier for viewers to not just empathize with Oakland youth, but also root for them.
The 2019-2020 school year was a pivotal year to focus on. It started off with student leaders wrestling with the issue of how to cope with drastic budget cuts to critical student support services. When the youth leaders agreed that the school police department should also be cut to free up money for vital services, they find that adult decision-makers refuse to support their idea. Then the students struggle through a pandemic that disrupted the end of their senior years. However, they find inspiration in the protests and awakening following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. And then they make history themselves.
Homeroom was also a product of personal trauma that occurred to Nicks early on during the production process. In the fall of 2019, he lost his teenage daughter, Karina, who was in her senior year at Oakland Tech. Karina had also worked at the Grand Lake Theatre.
During a Q&A panel after the film moderated by KQED’s Pendarvis Harshaw, an understandably emotional Nicks told the Grand Lake premiere audience that Homeroom is “the most hopeful” movie in his trilogy. “This is the most Oakland movie I’ve ever made,” Nicks said.
Acknowledging that the film was dedicated to the memory of his daughter, Nicks noted that the students he was filming at that low point in his life have been dealing with generational violence their entire lives.
Joining Nicks and Harshaw on stage for the Q&A panel were Oakland High alumnus Denilson Garibo, McClymonds High alumnus Dwayne Davis, Skyline alumna Jessica Ramos, and Oakland High alumnus/rapper/filmmaker Boots Riley.
About growing up in Oakland, Ramos told the crowd at the premiere, “It’s hella hard.” Homeroom depicts the students dealing with violence and loss, displacement and housing insecurity, systemic racism, social stratification, a global health pandemic, and ageism.
Ramos was a junior in the film, then served as a Student Director on the OUSD school board during the 2020-2021 year, and now attends UC Berkeley.
Nicks originally set out to make the movie about Oakland High School’s class of 2020, but Homeroom also focuses on students like Davis and Ramos from various high schools who are part of the All-City Council, a team of student leaders elected by their individual school communities.
Garibo, the O-High representative to the ACC, is the closest to a main character in the film. Homeroom opens up with Garibo’s own cell phone footage of himself waking up on the first day of school, and then follows his tenure as a Student Board Director and community activist.
Now a student at Long Beach State, Garibo encouraged the Grand Lake audience to “get involved, get engaged, keep it going.”
“Make that change today, not tomorrow,” he added.
While political activism is absolutely a major theme throughout the film, Homeroom doesn’t dive too deeply into school district politics. In fact, the premiere took place the same night as the first in-person school board meeting in 17 months. Current Student Directors Samantha Pal (Oakland High) and Natalie Gallegos (Oakland Tech) zoomed into the Board meeting from the Grand Lake because they wanted to attend the premiere.
Nicks uses a cinema verite style of filmmaking devoid of narration, letting the action captured on film speak for itself. However, the verite style also results in the absence of some context.
For instance, there is a scene where community activists shut down an OUSD school board meeting. What viewers aren’t told is that, aside from the fact that Oakland Unified has a long history of board meeting disruptions (the board meeting that took place during the Homeroom premiere was also disrupted by community members), the Oakland School Police had violently beaten community members at the previous meeting.
The reason why context matters is because Garibo’s story arc focuses on his involvement in the successful campaign to eliminate the school police, a campaign that was a decade in the making.
There are many scenes that leave a viewer wanting to know more, but ultimately, the film successfully captures life as a high school senior in Oakland in 2019-2020. With the help of the students’ own cell phone footage and social media content, we get a peek into their realities: sleep deprivation, cultural pride, acne, college applications, pronouns, parties, homecoming weekend, holidays, allyship, and graduation.
A viewer who doesn’t know anything else about Oakland would be impressed with the maturity and resilience displayed by Oakland youth in the film.
Another theme in the film is the ubiquity of cell phones and, consequently, access to information. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, these kids were connected to each other and the rest of the world.
This generation is also accustomed to being captured on film. They are not actors, but they seem to be comfortable on camera. Consequently, they are presented as their true selves, and so are the adults that they interact with.
At the premiere, Garibo implored the adults in attendance to not just listen to youth, but to support them as well. “Be that ally that they need,” said Garibo. “Stand up and invite us to the table because we don’t want to be part of the menu anymore.”