Watched Half Nelson just now after reading Ryan/Aless’ praise for it at Massthink. And although I don’t expect I’ll be watching this movie over and over, it is definitely one of those films (and I know this is way too cliche) that ‘everyone should see’. The story isn’t spectacular, or even very original. Dan Dunne is a white history teacher in a school in Brooklyn with mainly black and Hispanic students, who bypasses most of the school curriculum in order to engage the students on a more fundamental level of how history works. So far far this sounds like Dead Poets Society meets The Principal, and on one level it is.
But this film is beautifully subtle and poetic in the sense that it captures something more than the surface story of marginalization and the vicious cycles of ghetto life. Although the plot in itself is not remarkable, it provides a setting in which to explore a central theme in the movie; the fact that our existence and interaction on every level are inextricably caught up in networks of power. When Dan asks of his students in class how people are controlled, one answers prison, another schools, and ‘the man’. At this point a girl half jokingly, but at the same time looking sort of confused accuses him of being part of the system he is decrying. It is an obvious point to make, but the beauty of the film is how this notion returns in so many understated ways and levels throughout the film.
One way in which this is worked out is his slowly growing friendship with Drey, one of the kids in his class. She catches him smoking crack in the school toilet (yes he’s a basehead), something that, although she has no first had experience with, is in a different way a more integral part of her life than his; her brother is in prison for some drug-related demeanour and his ‘friend’ Frank the local drugdealer keeps trying to take her under his wing.
The movie is quiet, but creates a constant sense of the presence of the characters (mainly Dan), being there in that very moment, with the undercurrent of those multiplicities of forces pulling and pushing at them, but without which they wouldn’t be there in the first place. (Which reminds me a bit of Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a simpleton whose simplicity gets mistaken for profundity. Terrible over the top ending though). The viewer gets a sort of tangibly affective experience of the fact that structures of power pervade, but paradoxically also connect everything. This can have a strangely unheimlich but also unsettlingly vibrant effect.
Also well portrayed is Dan’s character as a teacher who tries to encourage the students to really understand underlying structures of history instead of just throwing dates at them that are either right or wrong (he gets told off by the principal for not following the school curriculum). He tries to eliminate his presence in class as a hierarchical figure that tells his students the way things are, and rather pushes them to think for themselves. As Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition that teachers should not say ‘Do as I do’, but shout ‘Do with me!’. An exploration of problems as possibilities for new concepts, not equations that come with answers in the back of the book.