How does a black kid from the Bronx come to possess the skill of writing?
How does a black kid from the Bronx come to befriend a reclusive, older white man who turns out to be a celebrated author?
It happens in the movie Finding Forrester, which celebrated its 15th anniversary Jan. 12. But this is more than a film. I would know.
Like the character Jamal Wallace, I was a child of New York City private schools, and I lived parts of that movie. I was a graduate of one of the top high schools in the nation, one very similar to Mailor-Callow, the elite private school that Jamal attended. For me as a child of color in such a school, the negative interactions witnessed in the movie were realistic portrayals of elite private school education.
The intimidation presented by the new environment, condescending expressions of students from wealthy families, covert racism expressed in comments, stereotypical expectations placed on students of color in regards to athletic talent, and clouds of doubt about the unlikelihood of our immediate and future academic success were all prevalent.
There were other pronounced issues, like classism and colorism, with labels such as “Oreo,” “Jack and Jill,” “uppity,” “hood” and “ghetto” tossed around by the black students themselves to both identify with and separate from one another.
This is a struggle for the majority of students of color in private schools: How do you assimilate into the environment while maintaining your own identity? The desire to fit in, compete and excel while not being labeled an “Oreo” or “sellout” is a battle fought internally that many can’t see. And it’s one that doesn’t necessarily disappear after high school.
But the private school experience should not be thought of as a negative one for students of color, because it wasn’t for me. The education received, lessons learned and friendships developed were all significant and lasting. You learned at an advanced pace, had great facilities compared with other schools, and had access to a vast amount of resources, information and networks. There were the usual cliques attributable to every high school, yet you would meet some damn good people—from students to teachers and coaches. And while I hate the “You went to Horace Mann?” reaction I receive when people learn where I graduated from, I feel fortunate to have been given a badge of great pride and access, one that has meaning beyond the walls of the school’s campus in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
Finding Forrester revolves around Jamal, a brilliant black teenager who has a gift for the written word, which he prefers to hide so he won’t stand out in the classroom and among his friends. He lives in the Bronx with his mother and brother and attends a public school, where he seamlessly interacts with both his school and neighborhood crowd.
His struggle at the school is best summed up in the parent-teacher conference between his mother and his teacher Ms. Joyce.
“Jamal maintains a C average, which means he does just enough to get by,” Ms. Joyce says. “It also means he does just enough not to stand out. … Basketball is where he gets his acceptance. These kids don’t care about what he can put down on paper.”
Jamal is excelling in stereotypically accepted areas of success, yet is fearful of venturing into traditionally uncharted fields. It’s a very real struggle.
His life becomes altered thanks to a standardized test, which gets him noticed by the admissions staff at Mailor-Callow, which seeks minority candidates with great potential as students and athletes. The winds of change push Jamal in another direction of discovery when a dare from his friends to sneak into the apartment of a reclusive old man backfires. Little does Jamal or the older man, William Forrester (as we came to find out later), know that this interaction will change their lives both quickly and for the better.
The odd couple eventually forge a relationship based on friendship, family, mentoring and inspiration, all revolving around the love of writing. It also revolves around the idea of awakening as Jamal experiences a discovery of his literary talents while Forrester eventually discards his hermitlike lifestyle to experience life once again.
While the story’s end is sad yet heartwarming, it is the moments the two experience and the obstacles they face and overcome together that make this movie special.
Read more at the Shadow League.