Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.
– Frederick Douglass
Even before COVID-19 revealed to the public the struggles of education in a populace unwilling to put in the work to help their children learn, there existed an uphill battle beginning in the earliest moments of brain development. See, while some would waste your time worrying about Critical Race Theory (CRT) in secondary education, which is actually primarily explored in colleges and graduate programs, the real problem begins within the first seven years and the ability to read. In the Information Age, without the ability to read, children are immediately set back from their peers. Reading comprehension forms the building blocks of the abilities to accessing everything from arts and entertainment to athletics, science, philosophy, religion, and everything in between. In her documentary The Right to Read, Dr. Jenny Mackenzie speaks with experts in the field of adolescent development, a teacher striving to improve the chances of her students, two families on their own journey to support their children, and Kareem Weaver, an activist in the NAACP based in Oakland, who strives to create equitable change in the education system for all children.
Any critique is formed through the prism of personal perspective, so some leakage is to be expected. In the case of Mackenzie’s The Right to Read, this is a subject which I must deviate from before diving into in order to ensure that the perspective from which I approach her documentary is clear. With my Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications, a Master’s Degree in Communications with a focus on digital technology, experiences in marketing, branding, and public relations through time spent in radio and in more commercial firms, as well as experiences as an adjunct Instructor for Introduction to Communications and Public Speaking at a local community college, and writing reviews, my professional life, as well as my personal life in driving the educations of my children, have primed me to have a very vested interest in the subject matter of The Right to Read. As a parent who grew up in a household valuing education (as well as being a voracious reader) and as an educator who believes that memorization is the Achilles heel of the public school system, the trials that Mackenzie’s subjects speak of, some of which many work tirelessly to overcome, are among the most pressing issues in our country.
One of the smartest things that Mackenzie does in the structure of The Right to Read is in the opening montage after introducing Kareem Weaver, who serves as the doc’s prominent narrative throughline. Mackenzie presents several clips of presidential addresses from former Presidents Bill Clinton (42), George W. Bush (43), Barrack Obama (44), and Joseph Biden (46) discussing the significance of providing a proper education for the children of the United States of America. Though the documentary doesn’t explore the damage done to the education system by the Trump Administration, these presidential clips are preceded by a few newspaper headlines which comment on the decisions President Trump made that impaired progress. This smoothly establishes what should already be firmly in the minds of the audience but works to remind those who do not realize this: education is a non-partisan issue and should remain as such. Something else that’s particularly strong (and that this former instructor found especially persuasive) is that for each area that Mackenzie visits with her subjects — Oakland, California; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Delta, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee — data is provided on screen to let us know what the reading proficiency there is, as well as a breakdown of the demographics by race. These data points serve to support the comments by both Weaver and first-grade teacher Sabrina Causey regarding the state of literacy among young children and the impact that the current approach is having on neural development. Mackenzie doesn’t just leave it to the people with boots on the ground in the classroom, she also speaks with two families striving to ensure that their children are among those who are proficient readers, which provides several moments of joy as the viewer finds themselves quickly invested in the success of these kids. Amid all of this, Mackenzie then intercuts to talking head interviews from several experts in the field of education from which a compelling argument is presented regarding changes that are absolutely necessary in order to ensure that our children have the best possible foundation as they progress from early-age development grades into middle and high school-level courses and beyond.
The trick, however (and this is the Public Speaking educator in me) is that there are pieces Mackenzie leaves out or presents in a manner that is difficult for the average person to identify. For instance, when the data points are placed on screen, the total proficiency is presented first, with the breakouts shown underneath. It’s carefully timed and formatted so that the audience can read and process what the data mean. However, it wasn’t until the second instance of this that I noticed the fine text in the bottom-right corner identifying where the data come from. There’s nothing being hidden here, but that should absolutely be more prominent as it only supports the overall claim of a need of a country-wide overhaul to the educational system. Similarly, in many of the montages that are cleverly animated to appear like a form of Peter Gabriel-esque stop motion, newspaper headlines are displayed, one after the other, in support of the claims explored during that given moment of the documentary, except only the publisher is provided. In order for any audience member to be able to track it down, the author and date of publishing (at least this, minimum) should be included. One of the key aspects of citing sources in Public Speaking is providing enough information so that the audience can verify or learn more later. Adding additional information not only allows this, as well as ensures that audiences knows that these headlines weren’t cherry-picked, but falls in line with the notion that an educated, well-informed populace is more likely to make wise decisions. Then there’s the constant mention of an eight-point agenda Weaver wants to implement, but only one point is stated, and the continued appearance of LENA materials with one of the subjects, but no explanation of what LENA is. It’s only by reading the press notes that I discovered LENA is an early language program in Virginia Beach. Having worked in both higher ed as a student and as an instructor, these are the kinds of issues that tend to come from being so close to the material an assumption forms as to what is common knowledge versus not, creating a discrepancy for the audience as they may not pick up on the messaging as completely as intended. Perhaps it’s the parent in me, but I’d also love to know more about the utility package Weaver passed out to students in what appears to be the 2020-2021 school year based on the prevalence of masks as it looked interesting and is spoken of as a great tool to support literacy, and yet isn’t clearly identified.
Despite what may sound like a nitpicky instructor gunning for a presenter, Mackenzie’s structure is engaging, the editing from Chelsi Bullard keeps things flowing, and the sequences involving both the family subjects and Causey provide a great deal of comfort in trying times. All caregivers really want is for their kids to retain curiosity, to thrive, to not get so bogged down by the systems and procedures that feign support when they’re actually just systems of rote memorization and control. Education comes when not only does the student feel supported, they themselves are invested creating an opening for learning, for understanding. When a child *understands,* they’re able to use that information to adapt to new circumstances, making them a more adept adult. You want to solve problems in the future? You make sure that a child can read, can process information, and can formulate ideas based on what they’ve read. Anything else just fosters compliance.
Screening during the Santa Barbara Film Festival 2023.
For more information, the official The Right to Read website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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