The T.M. Landry College Preparatory School of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, first garnered attention in 2016 with a series of viral videos showing students huddling around a computer and erupting in joy over their college acceptance reveals. As with most viral sensations, the students embarked on a media-blitz tour of local evening newscasts and national daytime talk shows. It was a modern-day Cinderella story: in a community where the average annual household income was $32,000, a school for underprivileged children boasted 100 percent college acceptance, with 32 percent headed to Ivy League institutions.
The documentary Accepted sets out to follow T.M. Landry seniors in the graduating class of 2019 and uncover the school’s secret recipe for success, something akin to a Louisiana-set Try Harder!, the excellent documentary on how overachievers cope with the pressure cooker that is San Francisco’s famed Lowell High School. Michael Landry, who operates T.M. Landry out of a warehouse with his wife Tracey, is shown motivating kids like a sports coach with tough love and rallying cries. The film follows students including Alicia Simon, Adia Sabatier, Isaac Smith, and Cathy Bui as they navigate daunting school days that begin at 8:20 a.m. and conclude at 8 p.m. For the most part, they seem to thrive on the school’s familial vibe. Simon, for instance, who transferred from a predominantly white school, no longer feels isolated.
Then everything unraveled on Nov. 30, 2018, when The New York Times published a 4,770-word exposé on its front page detailing T.M. Landry’s history of abuse and doctored transcripts. Filmmaker Dan Chen and his crew witness the ship going down firsthand. Interviews with students from this point on are conducted in a studio. Curiously, the first half features no such confessionals—and the film is candid about falling for Landry’s media savvy and carefully cultivated image.
Halfway through, for example, it allows Sabatier to lift the curtain, revealing that a scene seen 23 minutes prior was staged without the filmmakers’ knowledge. It involves Landry at home fielding calls at about 11 at night from students with homework questions. Sabatier, one of the callers in that scene, confesses that Landry had instructed students to call him at home in anticipation of the film crew’s presence.
In academia, there’s been ample discussion on performances in documentaries: because the camera is watching, subjects inevitably perform for it whether consciously or unconsciously, validating the maxim that to observe something is to change it. This is a rare moment when filmmakers acknowledge some limits of the documentary form and invite viewers to take everything with a grain of salt. Most documentaries are far less forthcoming, and many of late actively manipulate the audience, such as Roadrunner employing A.I.-generated Anthony Bourdain voiceover and Leave No Trace passing off one of its own producers as a third-party talking head.
Some questions still linger after the end crawl. What prompted whistleblowers to speak out when so much of their future depended on keeping up the charade? In the fiction film The Sweet Hereafter, teenaged Nichole decides to lie on the witness stand about the school bus accident for deeply personal reasons. This is in no way to suggest or imply that any former Landry students were untruthful, but the whistleblowers must have done similar soul searching before sharply steering off their life course when they were so close to crossing a finish line.
Several months after The Times’ exposé, an even bigger college admissions scandal broke in March 2019, Operation Varsity Blues, which implicated more than 50 well-heeled and connected parents, college coaches, exam administrators and others in the exchange of $15 million for placement at Ivy League schools and other elite institutions. The film shows T.M. Landry students reacting to the news, and commentators, some unattributed, explaining how one wrong (Operation Varsity Blues) begets the other (T.M. Landry). Now knowing the full scope of the systemic inequities they’re up against, do former T.M. Landry students have any regrets? Do they think they may have ended up in better colleges if everyone had just played along? Just as Chen doesn’t sniff out breaking news right under his nose, sometimes he’s not posing the obvious questions. Instead, the film succumbs to a conventional happy ending, with students heading off to HBCUs and state colleges.
Accepted ultimately arrives at a conclusion about the harmfulness of the “model minority” narrative without necessarily deploying the exact term, as it highlights the fact that these inspirational stories about marginalized people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps are often used to allow systemic inequities to fester. It’s a point Try Harder! also makes, but it’s especially compelling when it isn’t applied stereotypically to Asians, who have been caricatured that way. But to see black students framed as a model minority truly cements the damaging nature of the narrative, and the mental and emotional toll it takes on those forced into that box. And touching on these deeper issues without actually pinpointing the ones that need the most attention results in a documentary that ultimately misleads its audience in the same way its subject betrayed the filmmakers.