I can’t say that I loved it. I can’t say that I hated it. I believe I am solidly apathetic towards Soledad O’Brien’s latest installment for her “Black In America” series.
Part of me wonders if I’m a cynic. I don’t think I am. I can be cynical, but I found myself struggling to care during some segments of the two hour show. It wasn’t that the stories weren’t touching. In some cases many were profound or very sad. I simply felt like I’d seen all this before. The segments felt safe, uneven and dull. Large swaths of substantial information was missing like statistics, the number of students attending one charter school and the size of its graduating class, a real examination of the complex relationship between wealthy blacks and the rest of black America. An explanation how an ambitious program by Malaak Compton Rock could demand no grades at first, then expect students to succeed by overseas osmosis without any follow-up, help, tutors, counselors or motivation. By cramming four complex stories together, none seemed to get told completely or well.
Granted, I wasn’t expecting a 60 Minutes quality profile (which they manage to do in 12 minutes most nights) out of CNN. But for some stories, particularly the one involving John Rice and his group gearing individuals towards MBAs, seemed to have little to actual do with being black and more about people who just happened to be black and didn’t want to be engineers anymore. In that particular story’s case, of a young, professional black woman who’d tired of her lucrative, but unfullfilling career as an engineer, I joked that they could have followed my ex-electrical engineer sister around who quit her “lucrative career” to become an accountant and volunteer in soup kitchens.
But the best segment, by far, was the one on the charter high school run by Principal Steve Perry. A dynamic and driven personality, he was exciting to watch in action as he nurtured, willed and bullied his school into success, but even it left me wanting. I wanted to hear from more students. I wanted follow up with kids who’d gone to college. I wanted to know how many kinds who’d gone to college actually finished. I wanted to know how test scores at the school compared to other private and magnet schools, as well as public schools in the state. I wanted to hear from people who both agreed and disagreed with Perry’s educational model. I wanted more statistics on the school’s class size.
I didn’t want to just feel good about Perry’s accomplishments of getting 100 percent of his seniors into college. I wanted to actually know how this school worked and why it worked better than the alternative. How did you get into the school? How did they pick their students? I needed more substance.
Which was how I felt about almost every segment. I needed to know more. Hence why I got so bored during the ones that felt slapped together, like the tale of the Tuxedo Ball and wealthy blacks. I learned nothing about their lifestyle, where they live, what they do, their involvement in the community, their adoption of aristocratic ways, their history. A little background on Free People of Color might have been nice. A history lesson. But there was a lot of tell, and very little show.
In the case of Compton-Rock taking the students to South Africa, I thought this was a good idea if it was solely meant to teach fellowship and voluntarism, but I thought it bizarre when she suddenly expected grades to magically improve. Grades were never the stated goal. It seemed odd to suddenly care when nothing was done to improve them. Unless O’Brien missed something, there was no mention of tutoring or counseling, something many of those students needed. There was no mention of assigning mentors or getting them into better schools, or promising college scholarships for good grades. There was a lot of emotion, but the desired end result seemed inconsistent with the actual work done.
Overall, I gave part one a C. I would have graded it higher if the John Rice segment had been either re-edited to include more stories or cut altogether, or if the “Our Kind of People” segment had more heft. I think it was an improvement over last year’s show, but something was missing and that missing ingredient was the difference between me being touched by the show and wanting to toss the whole thing out the window.