Tag Archives: It’s a Wonderful LIfe

Propaganda Films

I don’t normally waste much time in class. Kids come in, I kick off the lesson, it’s all go until the bell rings–maybe twice a month kids finish early and I let them quietly chat for 5 minutes at the end of class. I’m never sick, so the kids don’t lose a day of instruction with a sub. I don’t do warmups (buzzword: “do nows”) since it kills about 20 minutes of classtime to no avail. I don’t spend time on class-long come to Jesus meetings about behavior or student objectives. I don’t do posters (past Algebra I, anyway). Winged porcine creatures will look down upon the Common Core standards frozen solid in the Styx before I’ll spend a nanosecond teaching non-fiction in math class. My kids come in day after day and do math—or, as my evaluator wrote recently, “This is a business-like classroom where not a lot of student or teacher energy is spent doing tasks not related to the objectives for the day.”

So if I set aside maybe 6 hours a year for the class to watch movies, I figure I’m entitled to the time.

I feel no obligation to propagandize math, literature, or history to my classes. I’m fine if my kids hyperventilate at the mere thought of math, think Dickens and Shakespeare are tedious torture, or see no value in understanding the economic factors that led to the Civil War. (That goes triple for science, an opinion which could possibly have something to do with the fact that it’s the one subject I don’t teach.)

I am not fine with the fact that kids today automatically sneer at black and white movies, or indeed any “old” movie—and these are kids who think the first Die Hard is “old”. Consequently, I have for many years committed myself to increasing awareness of the great, near-great, or merely awesome movies of previous generations, making up for my students’ parents’ shocking neglect. In other words, I show movies in class for propaganda purposes: I want them to like “old” movies.

Long before I became a public school teacher, I was showing movies in my enrichment classes, a polite and entirely Asian group of 6-10 kids. I get more leeway and more patience from them, so was able to experiment with a broad range of movies:

Showing movies in public school means a tougher crowd; Rear Window was the only one that made the first cut. This movie’s golden; I can show it to any population and practically guarantee an enthralled and appreciative audience. I always start off by telling the kids that movies in earlier eras felt comfortable building a narrative first, that they should watch to see how the characters are established, where the narrative shifts happen (the scream, the dead dog), and how they will be covering their eyes in the last 20 minutes in a movie that doesn’t spill a drop of blood onscreen. It’s always a big hit.

My first year in teaching, I taught a great elective, Fifties Science Fiction Films—Lord, was that fun. Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers got a huge response, so I tentatively introduced them to my math classes. Them! has gotten a mixed response overall, though —some kids love the flame throwers and the ants, some go eh. But Invasion is another can’t fail hit, everyone loves it every time I show it.

Older films, alas, don’t have a lot of “color”, and for several years I’d been looking for an outstanding movie with significant non-white characters—and I mean genuinely outstanding, not a movie we pretend is great simply because it has non-white characters or a noble goal (e.g., I am unmoved by To Kill a Mockingbird, book and movie both, and think Gandhi is pretentious tripe). I found one last February, when I came across In The Heat of The Night. I’ve loved the movie since I was 13, but hadn’t seen it in a decade or more. It fits the ticket perfectly: a great movie with no significant sex, violence or language problems that far exceeds its makers’ simplistic vision. Listen to director Norman Jewison and star Sidney Poitier in the commentary and you’d think they’d made a tedious liberal tract about those meeeeeean, bigoted white folks in subhuman Mississippi. But in fact, the film is far more nuanced, with great perception about the Southern class system in its entirety—not just black and white, but poor white, working class white, and oligarchy white.

I usually give a little talk up front about the impact of the automated cotton picker on the Southern economy, the importance of bringing industry and jobs to the South, and the class system. I tell them that the star of the movie, Sidney Poitier, was the top box office star of that year, and was in three of the biggest movies that year—that when he makes his first appearance onscreen, the contemporary audiences knew exactly who he was, and that the star had shown up. I’ve shown it to 7 classes now, and they’ve all loved it.

So this year, my kids being so much easier than those of previous years, and having also thoroughly enjoyed Heat of the Night, I decided to take a chance at Christmas.

In early December, I told them that they’d get a test on Wednesday (the 19th), and then watch a movie on Thursday and Friday. In both classes (my math support class has a different routine),the conversation went like this:

“Is it a good movie, or black and white?”

“It’s not a good movie, but a great movie, and it’s black and white.”

“Awwww, that sucks.”

“Okay, we won’t do a movie then. Two more days of math! Cool!”


“Yeah, you know how it works. Watch the movies I want you to watch, or do math. Is the worst movie in the world worse than math?” I am not big on democracy, have I mentioned?

“Movie. Please? Please show us this apparently awesome black and white movie!”

“Okay. This is a famous movie, so even if you hate it—and you probably won’t—it’s the movie equivalent of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, except way better because TKAM is like vegetables.”

So by the time yesterday came around, they were primed. It was a movie, better than math, but not anything they’d otherwise see. Probably it would suck, but then, they thought that about the Heat movie, and it was good. So they were open to having their minds changed.


And glory be, they enjoyed it thoroughly. They laughed in all the right places, got deadly still during the family tension scene, and clapped at the end. I noticed more than one girl wiping away tears as the lights came back on, and more than one boy ostentatiously jostling around for his backpack, keeping his face down, while he recovered.

Yet another step. One day soon, I’ll risk Casablanca. Roger Ebert, I’m doing God’s Work.