Andrew Cohn’s documentary Night School follows three high school dropouts as they enroll in a program to earn their diploma, rather than a G.E.D., in an Indianapolis initiative to bolster education in poorer communities. A G.E.D., an educator tells the camera, counts for about as much with potential employers as no degree at all, calling into question the point of earning it and highlighting the ways in which people are permanently stigmatized for their actions. The returning students of Night School want a degree so as to obtain better jobs as well as the “nice house and nice car” that they vaguely associate with success. They want out of the ghettos and into the suburbs, though what they truly want, without quite articulating it, is self-respect—to feel as if they truly belong in American society.
Cohn’s subjects are all African-American. Two are relatively young: Greg Henson is in his early 30s and Shynika Jakes is in her late 20s. Greg is unemployed, a former drug dealer living with his daughter and aunt, haunted by a criminal record that hinders his ability to find work. Shynika balances her job at Arby’s with school, the two schedules often vying for her attention. And the third student is Melissa Lewis, a woman in her 50s with children and grandchildren, living alone in a small disheveled home, with a job rehanging clothes at a store that resembles T.J. Maxx.
Melissa embodies the fear that motivates Greg and Shynika to return to school, as she looks back on her life in middle age and feels that she hasn’t accomplished anything, barely getting by in a succession of forgettable jobs. Melissa’s quite heavy and smokes, her profound unhappiness filling the frame, yet she has a commanding gravity that centers the documentary. Early in Night School, Cohn asks Melissa how long it’s been since she was first in high school, and she answers: “37 years.” The filmmaker asks her if it feels like 37 years, and she confirms that “it feels like 37 years” with a casually hard-won wit and bluntness that’s both funny and poignant.
Cohn lets the pathos of Greg, Shynika, and Melissa’s situations largely speak for themselves, filming them with a becoming sense of empathy. These returning students are indicative of the sort of under-funded educational system that partially serves to affirm this country’s classism, yet the film is a character study that preaches of reformation via observation. There’s a haunting moment when Melissa has dinner with another classmate her age that’s intensely aware of the loneliness and disenfranchisement of these women, and of the hope and bravery it requires to return to a classroom after decades have passed. In a correspondingly moving scene, Melissa meets a man at a bus stop, Rick, striking up a chemistry that feels like magic.
Later, a scene between Shynika and a protestor exudes a peculiar and resonant intensity: A white, affluent-looking man approaches Shynika in the Arby’s parking lot and asks if she works there, wanting to recruit Shynika for a protest designed to earn fast-food workers a 15-dollars-an-hour wage. At first you may be inclined to wonder what this white boy knows about Shynika’s troubles; such is the complicity that Cohn allows us to forge with his subjects. But there’s also something inescapably pat about Night School. The filmmaker accepts as a given the returning students’ belief that a diploma will improve their lives, not acknowledging that there are college graduates who’re presently unemployed or working at fast-food joints and department stores. Cohn doesn’t interrogate these students’ self-loathing either, which operates in tandem with the commercialist notion that everyone must have a proper white-collar job and make a certain amount of money to feel human. And the possibility of someone wanting education for the sake of education, rather than to obtain jobs or status, is barely acknowledged.
The students’ desires to move up the social ladder are understandable and laudable, but the high school diploma is accepted by the film too conveniently as a problem-solving MacGuffin, and Cohn’s storytelling is so insidiously smooth that we begin to notice the details that aren’t included. Given her job, how does Melissa afford to live in a house by herself? How does Shynika, who’s essentially homeless, manage to balance studying with the presumed precariousness of her life? One may wonder if Night School’s most revealing material has been left on the cutting room floor, so as to offer the sort of uplift that inadvertently marginalizes the very inequalities that drive the film.