Film Review: Andrew Cohn’s ‘Night School’ Is Myopic but Worthwhile

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In one scene of Andrew Cohn’s documentary “Night School“, we see a counselor advising a former high school dropout while the words “Black Lives Matter” are conspicuously displayed on his computer screen. In another, a young woman fights for her rights in a street protest for better wages. Neither of these scenes nor the overall film explicitly address the BLM movement, but it’s impossible to ignore its inherent relevance. The comparison however proves to be both a blessing and a curse in “Night School”, a limited but important examination of America’s flawed education system.

The film follows a trio of African-American adults (Greg, Melissa and Shynika), ranging in age from 26 to 53. They live in Indianapolis under different circumstances, but they share something in common. They are all high school dropouts struggling to make ends meet. A unique initiative promises a new lease on life however, offering a second chance at attaining their high school diplomas instead of the usual GED. Determined to succeed, they all enroll in the program. And so begins a life-changing year for these fortunate individuals. “Night School” depicts the struggles of their mission to finally graduate from high school, an opportunity rarely afforded to underprivileged dropouts in the African-American community.

Indeed, the disproportionate effect on African-Americans comes across quite clearly throughout the film. In that regard, the subjects of the film are well chosen, allowing Cohn to delve into the array of factors contributing to the low graduation rates. Greg is a single parent who was lured into the fast life of the drug world. Melissa is a former teenage mother who dropped out to take care of her child. Shynika is a former middle school honor roll student who lost her way upon arriving at her demotivating high school. Together, they represent the drug epidemic, cycle of poverty and segregated access to quality education that has historically plagued black urban communities.

Their situation is undoubtedly bleak, a fact that the film never shies away from. Eschewing rousing inspiration, “Night School” instead deals in the harsh truths of gun violence, homelessness and the high chance that these persons may fail. Thankfully, Cohn invites us to also look past the stereotypes we may hastily apply in witnessing their journey. With his unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall technique he allows the trio to tell their story in their words. And the ambitious, motivated attitudes they subsequently display dismantle the “lazy” and “apathetic” connotations of the term “high school dropout”.

And yet, despite the encouraging optimism of the depicted program and its participants, “Night School” feels like a missed opportunity. The film’s intro gives an alarming statistic, revealing that over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. It therefore begs you to question what measures are in place to help the remaining millions of dropouts who do not live near such night school programs. As one administrator explains, living in the wrong zip code means that you may not have a fair chance at a good education. But this same solution seems to perpetuate that problem of access, and Cohn never addresses any plans of nationwide expansion.

Overall, “Night School” is a vital documentary that spotlights a critical social justice issue. Furthermore, director Andrew Cohn’s observational style is worthy of praise, providing a genuine sense of authenticity. But unlike the Black Lives Matter movement alluded to in the film, his approach is ultimately too passive.

“Night School” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★½)