- Human Interest
WHATEVER IT TAKES chronicles the first year of a radically innovative high school set in NYC's South Bronx. This deeply emotional, veritÃ©-style documentary examines the lives of Edward Tom, the schoolâ€™s brash, visionary rookie principal, and Sharifea Baskerville, a talented ninth-grade girl with big dreams but even bigger obstacles.
- Show treatment
WHATEVER IT TAKES begins on the first day of school, with Principal Tom outside greeting each arriving student with a handshake and hug. Cut to the school auditorium, where a sea of young African American and Hispanic faces listen as Principal Tom sets the stakes high: â€œPeople who look like you and meâ€¦ theyâ€™re gonna expect excuses from us. And we canâ€™t give the world excusesâ€¦ I looked at every one of your parents and said â€˜100% of your children will have the choice to attend college in four years.â€™â€
The film then transitions to the classroom, revealing dedicated teachers who go above and beyond to connect intellectually and emotionally with their students. Some of the more experienced teachers win over students immediately; others teaching for the first time find the going a bit rough. One such rookie, a white female from a prosperous New Jersey suburb, gets a racial epithet thrown her way in her first week.
In spite of the occasional incident, the year begins with students responding positively to the schoolâ€™s potent mixture of tough love and high expectations. Banners in the hallway trumpet the schoolâ€™s values â€“ Honor, Excellence, Service â€“ and students appear to wholeheartedly embrace BCSMâ€™s smaller family environment. Several students share about how much they appreciate BCSM; their previous schools were â€œwar zonesâ€ full of gang violence and metal detectors.
Brief interviews with educational experts from around the country set the context for how schools such as BCSM were created, and why the ever-growing â€œsmall school movementâ€ is championed as the savior of urban public education. While NYC Department of Education officials boast of large gains in attendance and graduation rates, education professors at Columbia and NYU raise serious doubts about sustainability and the limited potential of small schools to effect region-wide change.
Change, however, is what Principal Tomâ€™s life is all about. Had he not committed himself to changing the lives of low-income, minority kids, he never would have traded his lucrative position as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the wholly unglamorous job of high school math teacher. As the camera tilts down from a 7th Ave street sign, we catch up with Principal Tom as he strolls past Manhattanâ€™s Garment District. â€œI donâ€™t miss my old life at all,â€ he says, â€œWorking with kids is my calling â€“ itâ€™s what I was made for.â€
Midway through the school year, however, Principal Tomâ€™s ideals run up against reality: over half his students are failing, detention hall is overflowing, and gang members start recruiting at school. (Even some teachers begin to rebel, disillusioned with 16-hour work days and tired of Principal Tomâ€™s motivational rhetoric.) While traditional inner-city high schools, burdened with thousands of troubled students, are forced to accept high failure rates, the staff at BCSM is determined to protect their kids from falling through the cracks.
Desperately at risk is Sharifea, a 14-year-old girl whose recovering crack-addict mother is laid up in bed most days, sick and depressed. One weekday morning around 5am, we visit the projects where she lives, and witness Sharifea being a surrogate mother to her two younger siblings: dressing them, brushing their hair, fixing breakfast, and sending them off to school. When she gets back from school, Sharifea resumes her role as primary caregiver. While her mother hates to burden Sharifea with so much responsibility, she readily admits that â€œSharifea is my backbone... she helps me out.â€
Cheerfully resilient, Sharifea latches onto dreams of becoming a pediatrician: â€œI donâ€™t care if I have to go to four years of medical school, Iâ€™m gonna do itâ€¦â€ But lacking both the time and motivation to study, Sharifea soon receives Fâ€™s in all of her classes. Supportive conversations with concerned teachers fail to reverse her course, and Sharifea gets defensive and moody.
The final act of WHATEVER IT TAKES captures the efforts of Principal Tom and his staff working feverishly to admit Sharifea into a prestigious three-year summer college preparatory program at Dartmouth College. While Sharifea clearly recognizes that this life-changing opportunity represents her last hope, tension builds as her poor grades threaten to disqualify her from participation. At the last hour, Sharifeaâ€™s mother finally shows up for an emotional meeting with Principal Tom, and a solution is worked out. The film closes happily with a few short, but tender scenes of Sharifea enjoying herself and thriving academically amidst the vast green lawns and ivy-covered buildings of Dartmouth.
- Running time
- 92 and 53 minutes
- Prod. Co.
- Whatever It Takes Doc, LLC
- United States
- Years of Production
- New York City
- Prod. Partners
- Center for Asian American Media Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program
- Release year
- AFI Dallas, Big Sky, SF Intl Asian American, LA Asian Pacific, RIDM (Montreal), Asian American Int'l, Hawaii, Bend, DC APA, Philadelphia Asian FF, Vancouver Asian FF, Ojai Ventura Int'l FF
- Grand Jury Prize & Audience Award (LA Asian Pacific FF); Audience Choice Award (Asian American Int'l FF); Best Documentary Feature (DC APA FF)
- Broadcast (Acq.)
- Independent Lens
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