The director is re-teaming with frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan to tackle the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.
We’re all familiar with “inspiring teacher” films. They’re the kind that leave you weepy with heartache yet inexplicably hopeful for “the next generation.” More often than not, these movies have uncomplicated happy endings for students and teachers alike. Dead Poets Society, October Sky, and Freedom Writers come to mind.
Films like these present the schooling experience in dichotomous terms. You work hard and you will succeed no matter the circumstances — and you’ll only have yourself to blame if you fail. Teachers can bend some of the rules if that’s what they need to help their students reach their full potential. They are then usually lauded for their candor and bravery, especially if they’re dealing with disadvantaged children.
These films normally prove to be passable drama narratives despite being simplistic. They are mostly feel-good. Audiences walk out feeling empowered and indignant without having to really question the existing state of that system.
This happens even more so in stories peppered with white-saviorism; Freedom Writers features it, as does the darker and less obviously optimistic Half Nelson. They are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to films about children from minority groups. White teachers are usually there to “turn their lives around,” simply put.
Well, Ryan Coogler is working on a teacher story of his own that will possibly break all sorts of stereotypes when it comes to films about the American education system. Wrong Answer is Coogler’s next Michael B. Jordan starrer, and it will be based on true events: a widespread cheating scandal that rippled through 44 schools in Atlanta, Georgia. The film will be from the point of view of one of the educators involved, with Jordan portraying math teacher Damany Lewis. Ta-Nehisi Coates will write the script based on Rachel Aviv’s 2014 New Yorker feature.
Aviv’s article shines the spotlight on Lewis, someone caught up in the throes of a system that causes both students and educators lose out. The piece paints an impressively conflicted portrait of the emphasis placed on data from high-stakes standardized testing. It features varying perspectives with changeable levels of ethical consequence.
Morality isn’t a new topic for Coogler. His films collectively navigate onscreen portrayals of violence and brutality, although some stories are more optimistic than others. Those themes are always at play, whether it’s a smaller-scale film like Fruitvale Station or a franchise sequel like Creed.
Wrong Answer is definitely a step back into indie production for Coogler after working on the Marvel juggernaut Black Panther (in which Jordan will also appear). It harks back to the vicious intimacy of his first film. There are topical similarities between them. These films could be considered incarnations of institutionalized violence enacted upon black bodies. With Fruitvale, it’s law enforcement, with Wrong Answer, education.
Wrong Answer actually seems somewhat reminiscent of 1988’s Stand and Deliver. Both films are based on true stories about schools populated by predominantly minority students, and their teachers are accused of cheating to help get their kids ahead.
But we’re not conflating those stories any further. Cheating was a very real factor in the Atlanta case and there were heavy consequences. People went on trial, lost their jobs, and some were convicted. The scandal itself revealed egregious misconduct on multiple levels of the education system. There was such a heavy crackdown on educators and bureaucrats that such a method of law enforcement was in itself considered too harsh. It makes for a very different kind of savior narrative when no one is unequivocally right.
There’s another point of divergence from many other teacher films: black voices will be prioritized. Wrong Answer will be written and directed by and will star black men. It is no secret that equality and inclusion are still scarce in the film industry. And it remains hard to find a primary creative team without a single white voice, even when it comes to stories about marginalized communities.
Lewis and Aviv will be consulting on the film, not only implying a commitment to factual integrity. It also leads me to believe that it wouldn’t have to end in an unrelentingly optimistic fashion for it to be considered “inspiring.” Because in spite of the deeply sobering nature of the trial, Aviv’s article provides unconventional promise that Coogler wouldn’t likely leave out. His previous efforts have been empathetic and rousing, whether they’re in indie or blockbuster form.
It’s about whether you leave the theater livid or content in that representation. Coogler has the ability to reach out to bare-bones emotions without falling into traps of superficiality. He’s just the right person to tackle a story like this, and we’re teeming with anticipation.