When you watch TPT’s “Black Brilliance” next Sunday — and you really need to — one of the biggest accomplishments of the 30-minute documentary may not be readily apparent.
The capstone of the multiyear, 34-station project “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen,” the program follows a handful of Twin Cities students through their final weeks of high school. We meet their families and the educators who have invested in them, and we hear about their plans for the future.
What you don’t hear, given that the students in question are all African-American, is the too-familiar narrative attached to black achievement in this country. No one overcomes adversity. No hero, black or white, rides into the picture and helps the young person in question tap his or her potential.
Nor are the protagonists of “Black Brilliance” necessarily high-flying outliers. They are everyday teens, depicted shining brightly at school and at home. There are speed bumps, but they are moments along the way.
Take Eshay Brantley, who is depicted helping to lead spoken-word performances at Washburn High School’s social justice Blackbox Theatre. As we meet her, she is describing her plans after graduation.
“My plan is to get back into education to fix education,” Brantley explains, going on to quote her teacher: “Don’t ever sit quietly at a dinner party because you might not get fed.”
Several minutes elapse before we learn that Brantley moved out of her mother’s home the year before and is living with her boyfriend’s family. Not much time is spent dwelling on this.
Brantley is instead shown coaching her classmates on tapping their feelings to fuel their art. If the spoken word that punctuates the show is any indication, she beyond succeeds.
“I’ve noticed the language in between the lines in this building,” a classmate intones. “And it says I am not equal to those around me.”
“Black and white PD make my heart beat faster,” another raps. “Brown boy black man may you know no master.”
The substance is gritty and the form powerful.
“I would like not to be stereotyped as the angry black girl who won’t shut up,” Brantley says. “To be a part of this message is to be at the table and witness growth and witness change.”
A Corporation for Public Broadcasting initiative, “American Graduate” has, as its core mission, exploring the barriers to high school graduation and identifying potential solutions. One of the effort’s chief goals is to highlight the strengths of youth who are usually viewed through a prism that seizes first on their deficits.
Another stereotype blown: The parents depicted are supportive, articulate and engaged.
“Black Brilliance” is the culmination of a process that started with focus groups with Twin Cities teens. Sunday’s premiere was preceded by panel discussions on “Almanac” featuring teens from the documentary. In addition, TPT viewers can also expect to see mini-documentary “champions” spots featuring snippets of brilliance airing in coming weeks.
After the documentary’s premiere there will be additional web content on the “American Graduate” section of TPT’s website and on a related YouTube playlist. An inspired animated essay on the roots of prejudice — narrated by Brantley — has already gone a little viral.
“We came in with a premise, but the message came from the students,” says Producer Rebeka Ndosi. “What has made you successful? How are you going to get where you need to go?”
This is, of course, the gold standard in terms of engaging young people. And education circles these days are abuzz with talk about moving away from defaulting to noting students’ deficits before identifying their strengths.
Engaging in storytelling from this stance, however, is a serious high wire act. Instead of the conventional kid-beats-odds through-line, the narrative becomes richer but harder to convey: How do you retain and honor your brilliance in a world that’s light years behind you?
The fact that several of the students are shown shining in extracurricular or unexpected arenas is an outgrowth of a major theme Ndosi and her colleagues picked up on early on. In community after community, they found that black youth were more successful in situations that allowed for creative expression.
Spoken word is one example. Another involves Shakira Jakes, a gifted chef shown at work and declaring confidently to the camera that she can make anything. She plans to go to culinary schools and open a restaurant just as soon as she graduates from an alternative learning center in Burnsville.
“Black Brilliance” succeeds on many levels, but its largest victory may be that it makes clear it’s possible to present a very different, compelling narrative—one that depicts young people of color as gifted learners who meet and surmount challenges as they exercise their talents.
The documentary premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. on TPT’s MN Channel. It will be rebroadcast on the same channel Oct. 3 at 5 p.m., Oct. 4 at 1 a.m., 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
The program will also air on TPT’s Life channel Oct. 11 at noon and is likely to be broadcast on the main channel — the one we think of as Channel 2 — in early 2016.