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 this month on January 12th. But this is more than a film. I would know.
Like the character Jamaal Wallace, I was a child of New York City private schools and 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 Jamaal attended. As a child of color in these schools, 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.
Other pronounced issues like classism and “colorism,” where labels such as “OREO”, “Jack and Jill”, “uppitty”, “hood” and “ghetto” were tossed around by the Black students themselves to 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 “Sell Out” is a battle fought internally that many can’t see. And it’s one that doesn’t necessarily disappear after high school as well.
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 to 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 be 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 Jamaal, a brilliant Black teenager who has a gift for the written word that he prefers to hide so he won’t stand out in the classroom and amongst 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.
“Jamaal 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.”
Jamaal is excelling in stereotypically accepted areas of success, yet fearful of venturing into traditionally unchartered 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 Jamaal in another direction of discovery when a dare from his friends to sneak into the apartment of a reclusive old man backfires. Little did Jamaal or the older man, William Forrester (as we came to find out later), know that this interaction would change their lives both quickly and for the better.
The odd couple would eventually forge a relationship that would be based upon friendship, family, mentoring and inspiration, all revolving around the love of writing. It also revolved around the idea of awakening, as Jamaal experienced a discovery of his literary talents while Forrester eventually discarded his hermit-like lifestyle to experience life once again.
While the story’s end was sad yet heartwarming, it was the moments they experienced and the obstacles they faced and overcame together that made this movie special. We fumed when Mr. Crawford, Jamaal’s English instructor, repeatedly doubted his writing talents. We cheered for him when he defeated Crawford in an instigated battle and classroom discussion around classic literature, and supported him when he was ambushed and accused of plagiarism.
But nothing stirred our emotions more than when William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, appeared at the school’s writing competition to support Jamaal, first by reading a letter he wrote after losing the championship basketball game the night before and then confirming that he helped Jamaal write his submission by encouraging him with one of his own stories.
We were dying to stick it to both Crawford and Hartwell, and their expressions of shock and disdain made the moment even more savory. John Hartwell was the basketball team’s captain and other Black player, the antagonist in the Black student divisional war mentioned previously. The one who established the “color boundary” on the first day of practice by stating to Jamaal, “You might think we’re the same, but we’re not.”
Incidents like that couldn’t deter Jamaal, played by Rob Brown in his acting debut. Instead of falling prey to hate or the lure of the streets, he showed us that with support, inspiration, access and opportunity, an inner-city kid could thrive and succeed in a new environment.
This is no fairy tale; just look at students from programs such as the “Liberty Partnership” and “Prep for Prep” in New York City. If you challenge children of color and give them the tools and resources they need, their talents will develop and flourish.
Jamaal was a star, both in the classroom and on the basketball team, yet some regarded his skills on the hardwood of more importance that his talents off of it. But that didn’t phase him until he realized what was meaningful for him.
He didn’t want to be viewed as an athlete first, and when his intelligence and integrity were challenged, he responded in a way that many of us wouldn’t have had the courage to. Despite the dirty looks from almost every student in the school, Jamaal refused to back down, break his promise to Forrester of revealing his existence or compromise his beliefs.
At this time of year, where we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we could recognize Jamaal’s two free throw misses as a form of non-violent protest, echoing the words of Dr. King in his purpose:
"Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. ... The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness."
Jamaal’s actions are refreshing in today's society where money talks, celebrity overshadows credibility and substance and digital thuggery flourishes.
“Finding Forrester” is truly about searching for and finding something meaningful. Jamaal found a mentor, father figure and a path to success. William found a friend, inspiration and talent that revitalized his life.
And for those of us who watched it, we learned that sometimes the loudest and most outspoken isn’t the one with the most to offer, and if you just have a little patience and invest time, you will find that hidden gems can be discovered.
You will find that talent sometimes requires incubation – that all some people need is support, belief and coaching, and they can flourish and rise from the insecurities, doubt and fear which hold them back.
As we learned from “Finding Forrester,” the differences between people should not divide them, because when shared with sincerity, they have the ability to inspire creativity and advancement, whether you’re an old white, curmudgeonly recluse or a Black kid from the Bronx.