Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The forthcoming release of Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction—and the recent release of the excellent Approaching The Elephant—has us thinking back on other movies about teaching.
Films about teachers have an unfortunate habit of falling back on empty platitudes that cheapen the frustrating work of attempting to reach a group of diverse human beings. One is often encouraged to “follow their dreams” in such a film, with little detail proffered as to how such a notion might be achieved. The students subsequently become worshipful cherubs of the teacher, usually over the course of a montage or two. Stand And Deliver is not without these clichés, particularly in terms of how quickly the barrio students of Garfield High, written off by the school as unteachable, come around to loving Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos), an instructor who refashions an essentially time-killing remedial math program into a training ground for AP calculus. But the film is only outwardly sentimental.
Underneath the narrative’s “inspirational” shell is a surprisingly tough movie about racism, cultural baggage, and the egomania that’s required of any initiations of major social change. Escalante isn’t a benevolent Mr. Chips, but a brilliant pit bull with a chip on his shoulder. Understanding that math isn’t exactly on the tips of most teenagers’ tongues, particularly those living in Los Angeles slums who’ve grown to accept cultural marginalization as status quo, Escalante fashions calculus into a mild but undeniable theater of ridicule that dares them to buck against the stereotypes associated with their race. Escalante’s blunt about his classist issues: He’s tired of watching Latinos work in America as manual laborers, and he’s willing to play hardball in the classroom to alter that legacy—by threatening students with a future spent frying chicken or pumping gas (jobs some of their parents may have), by asking them to sign a contract that will double or even triple their mathematic class-load, and even by implicatively ribbing one student about her sexual promiscuity.
Stand And Deliver also bothers to show bits and pieces of the actual work of teaching and learning, emphasizing the repetitive nature of school to illustrate the strenuousness that’s required of “following your dream”—and that’s assuming that calculus has anything to do with most of these students’ dreams to begin with. The film is frank about that too: This calculus crusade is often much more about Escalante’s issues than those of his students, some of whom already have profitable jobs available to them, though they are the laborer sort of occupations that Escalante views with unwavering contempt.
Yet Stand And Deliver is ultimately uplifting, because it bothers with the nuts-and-bolts ambiguities of cultural rehabilitation. Escalante arises as a deeply decent person, someone who compliments his students with his unwillingness to treat them like preordained losers; his taunts indicate a refusal to belittle with pity. Escalante even yields when he knows that it’s time for his human side to show itself, which is particularly and poignantly illustrated when he runs out into a hallway to speak to the girl whose reputation he just impugned. In his most powerful, charismatic, and subtly-worn performance (watch those eyes when Escalante feels threatened or disappointed), Olmos paints a definitive portrait of a man who gives a damn, though he refuses to shy away from the thornier side of his character’s obsession. The actor shoots straight with his audience, as Escalante does with his students.
Availability: Stand And Deliver is available on DVD through your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.