No matter the time, no matter the place, the defining trait in every civilization is its educated populace. The choices each individual member makes are based upon the information they have or the information they lack. In modern politics, education development is considered a “silver bullet” for the reduction in crime, poverty, and more. The trick is, education for all is great until someone balks at paying for it or it becomes more profitable to keep the uneducated in the same state generation after generation. Exploring these notions is Miss Virginia, directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna (the short film Everything) with a script from Erin O’Connor (We the Internet). Inspired by the true story of mother Virginia Walden’s personal mission to get her son James into a better school, the film follows Ms. Walden as she comes to learn that the task of funding education is mired in conflicting ideologies, making something as simple as finding a safe way to improve her son’s learning capabilities into a war with Congress.
Single-mom Virginia Walden (Uzo Aduba) has a bright but unmotivated son. With publicly-funded education doing the bare-minimum, her son James (Niles Fitch) is inclined to do the same. After an incident at school nearly gets James expelled, Virginia takes it upon herself to move Heaven and Earth to get him into a better school. However, in order to change things in Washington, D.C., where Virginia is a resident, a law must be approved by Congress and signed by the President. With a determined heart and support from her community, Virginia starts a movement of change in Autumn 2003 that doesn’t stop until a new opportunity is created for James and others like him.
As with most films inspired by true stories, the outcome is the least surprising aspect. Virginia Walden spearheaded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program with help from her community and Congressman Clifford Williams, and the fact that the organization Serving Our Children continues to help run the program makes the outcome not only foregone, but obvious. Despite this, Miss Virginia maintains an unexpected tension throughout the film through a compelling script, outstanding performances, and strong direction. It all begins with Aduba and Fitch who never present their characters as anything more than people, as opposed to the archetypes other films might opt for. Fitch’s performance is more subtle, working in concert with the script to show James as a smart student who needs a different method of education. His portion of the story is less overt than the rest, relying on Fitch’s performance to convey the very real complexities of trying to escape the pull of a low-income community. This, of course, brings us back to Aduba and one of the best scenes in the film as Virginia goes to a local council meeting and is rebuffed. In this sequence, Virginia is told that by not following the rules, she can’t contribute to the discussion and, in this moment, Aduba, without an ounce of melodrama, brings the whole of Miss Virginia into clear focus as she proclaims that if she knew the rules, she’d have followed them. This scene is one of several in which Aduba is simultaneously a force of pure emotion and a picture of human restraint. The system that Virginia is fighting to adjust possesses rules which continuously uphold a system benefiting only those who know them. How can the average person, without advanced degrees, position, or stature, hope to elicit change in their community if the rules don’t function to serve that community? As she fights back tears and rage, Aduba is absolutely enthralling, beautifully conveying the complexity and righteous fury of every parent who only wants to make the world better for their child.
It would be easy for Hanna and O’Connor to present everything in the film as fitting into some kind of box. As if aware of the conscious and subconscious biases audiences bring to stories like Miss Virginia, there are few true villains in the story. More often than not, bad guys are just people with different perspectives that the story doesn’t explore. For one, the inner-city area in which Virginia lives would be easily presumed to be filled with drug dealers and drug users and not much else. Anyone having lived in the D.C. area can attest that even moving one street over in any direction can result in a dramatic shift in the look of the homes and the types of people who live there. Through a few scenes, this presumption is shifted, showing that Virginia’s area contains just as many hard working people trying to lift their children up as any other area. Except here, it’s harder to get out using bank loans thanks to redlining and the schools have more in common with prisons than classrooms. For another, there’s Congresswoman Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis), a consummate politician who wants to affect educational change, and one who Virginia initially aligns with until she begins to believe that Townsend is more interested in the appearance of change than the actual work of change. Not much time is spent focused on Townsend’s POV, but Ellis does great work with what she has, even as she embodies the type of politician audiences expect. However, there is room provided by Ellis’s performance to suggest that she’s not the villain the story would have you think, she just possesses a different perspective on Education Reform. This is incredibly important as Ellis is one of many Black actors in the film who are never reduced to stereotypes. In fact, the lack of coding for any of the people presented in the film is part of what makes Miss Virginia work emotionally. Whether positioned as adversaries or friends, there’s nothing reductive about any part of the characterizations, creating an atmosphere that focuses on the removal of racial bias to inject a truth.
As wonderful as the supportive cast is, it’s hard not to mention Matthew Modine’s Congressman Clifford Williams, who is presented as the perfect foil for Aduba’s Virginia. Never once is he staged as the white savior so many films dealing with any kind of racial element delve into. Rather, Modine’s Cliff is almost entirely a supportive role, granting Virginia a platform for her education initiative and helping her find the votes she needs to secure it. Though there are times when Modine seems aloof in the role, it likely comes across that way in contrast to the seriousness Aduba presents in their scenes together. Aduba herself presents Virginia as full of love and energy, but the cause she’s undertaking is new to her and daunting, so it makes sense for the performance to seem tense at times, creating a sense that Modine’s Cliff is just playing at politics instead of being invested. This sense is enhanced by Modine’s portrayal of the Congressman as being passionate about the things he believes in, witty, charming, and just a little off. However, considering how grounded Aduba plays Virginia, Modine adds a bit of levity into the very real and very tense situations the duo find themselves entrenched in. One such moment comes as Virginia learns of a rather significant victory which requires her to give a speech, something which she isn’t comfortable doing. How she finds out about that particular caveat is incredibly entertaining because Cliff calls her while on camera in the background of the press conference Virginia is watching that is announcing the win. It’s one of those hyperreal moments that feels as though it was made explicitly for cinema, yet it is touching, hilarious, and absolutely on-brand for what the audience knows about Cliff up until this scene.
What makes Miss Virginia so heart-warming isn’t the inevitable triumph we know is coming, but in watching how the people of the community come together as one. With so much going on in our country that divides us, Miss Virginia is a reminder of a time in our not-so-distant past when we put aside our pettiness and divisiveness, our shallow need for popularity, and did what was right to ensure that those we bring into this world are given chances better than ours when we leave it. That maybe the institutions, in their slow, meandering ways, are still capable of change, especially when a community becomes too resilient, from years of frustration, to be pushed away. Ghandi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Thanks to the actions of Virginia Walden, her community, and Congressman Williams, the change happened, offering an opportunity for more changes to come in the form a new generation of educated residents.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital October 18th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.