OT: Our Town Review

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AKA: N/A
Genre: Docudrama/Meta-fiction
Year Released: 2002

Distributor: Film Movement

Origin: USA
Running Time: 76 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Colors Straight Up, Romeo is Bleeding, Let The Church Say Amen, Freedom Writers, Music Of My Heart

Notes:
-The iTunes cover states that this documentary takes place in Compton High School. It actually takes place at Dominguez High School.

Fun Facts:


-This is the debut film of director Scott Hamilton Kennedy who’s better known for his documentary The Garden.

-The lead teacher Catherine Borek would eventually marry Scott Hamilton Kennedy.

-Our Town is the most performed play in America.

-Here’s a short list of Manuel Dominguez High School alumni:
MC Ren from NWA
Lil Eazy-E (rapper and Eazy-E’s son)
Cedric Ceballos (basketball player)
Tyson Chandler (Phoenix Suns player)

-Speaking of Tyson Chandler, he even makes a brief cameo in OT: Our Town.

If you’ve been following Iridium Eye, you’ve noticed that I upload at least one review a week from a movie distributed by Film Movement. They’re a company that specializes in independent movies from all over the world. I would like to review a documentary that has a certain history with me. Truth be told, I was tempted to mention this in the Fun Facts section: OT: Our Town is the first film I’ve ever seen that was distributed by Film Movement back when I was in high school and remembered liking it back then.

 But does it still hold up though?

OT: Our Town is a documentary that was filmed in the early 00s. This takes place in Compton, California. The movie even kicks off by playing “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA while showing the impoverished areas and some people talking about this city. A whirlwind of dilapidated buildings, low-income housing, and some people throwing up gang signs appear within the first few minutes. Next comes the location: Dominguez High School. It’s a school with a majority Black and Latino population where the only good things that came out of that school are basketball players. Not to mention that at the time, there hadn’t been a play performed in twenty years. It’s up to the teachers Catherine Borek and Karen Greene to get these apathetic teenagers to re-contextualize the famous play Our Town, but change the setting from rural New Hampshire to the urban setting of Compton.

I thought it was good how they got these kids to be a part of this project despite literally having no budget. There was a lot of drama with the students not showing up at some practices, forgetting lines, and few if any of them had no prior theatre experience let alone appreciating plays. There were some good intentions and I did want them to succeed without succumbing to the stereotypes thrust upon them as they live in “the birthplace of gangsta rap”. OT: Our Town does have a good amount of feel good moments, so I can’t fault the filmmakers for making this documentary.

Watching the scenery of Dominguez High School and Compton was gritty like the footage. That school is severely underfunded. There are old textbooks, fading paint, and one brief classroom scene had Mac computers that would be considered old-school in the 90s. I half-expected them to be operated for the original Oregon Trail games. The footage is basic, but it certainly aged. I saw a lot of aliasing and the film is definitely cinema verite. I had mixed feelings with this style because anyone with a smartphone can film something better than this, but the visuals add to the aesthetics of OT: Our Town. You can also tell how aged the movie is with the fashions, hair styles, and pop culture references. One student, Jackie is a hardcore NSYNC fan who likes all their songs. One scene with her had “Bye Bye Bye” booming in the background which let me know how old the footage was. This could turn off some younger viewers.

With all the good intentions with the teachers and filmmakers, this documentary does follow some overdone cliches and tropes. Let’s get down to it; OT: Our Town is a “save our students” movie. Sure, it’s a documentary instead of a fictional story, but it’s so obvious despite the real-life bad situations in Compton. There’s another big cliche that often ties in with most “save our students” situation that this follows: the white savior theme. Just because one of the teachers Mrs. Greene is African-American doesn’t change that. The main focus is on Ms. Borek (the lead teacher in charge of this production of Our Town) who’s telling these inner-city students how to behave. I’m not discounting her efforts, but this only adds to people’s prejudices since this is unfortunate implications fodder. She’s never portrayed to have any flaws during her screen time. Seriously, it’s just like Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Music of My Heart, The Class, and several other movies where a white teacher is employed by an under-served school to deal with “problem children”. That portrayal is insulting. To add to the present racial implications, one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene had a black teenager eat a watermelon at school. How did no one see this in the editing room? Did they realize how bigoted that shot would be? I wish the filmmakers would have paid more attention with how they compiled the footage and realize the messages they could be sending.

OT: Our Town does have some good emotional moments and drama, but watching it after all these years made me realize that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. The camera work has certainly aged, but the grittiness does work given the content of the play. I did like how the students and teachers were able to show this play in their cafeteria since they didn’t have a real stage. I did applaud that. Despite the message being about breaking racial and class stereotypes, some elements of the docudrama and editing only amplifies some of them. OT: Our Town may have a feel-good theme, but this film is quite flawed.

Adjustable Point System

Add 1 point if you like plays
Subtract 2 points if you can’t stand save our students storylines

Pros:

-Gritty aesthetics
-The determination of the OT faculty and students
-Some legit funny moments (the kissing scene being a highlight)

Cons:

-Aged visuals and pop culture references
-Condescending narrative with Compton’s situation
-White savior theme and racial implications

Final Score: 4/10 points



Content Warning: Teens and up. There’s some strong language despite one student trying to “keep it PG-13”. There’s some gang imagery with some signs being thrown up quite early in the film. There’s several conversations about teen pregnancy and one scene has a prom picture of a pregnant girl to drive that point home.

-Curtis Monroe

Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

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