The end of a semester is always movie time for my high school social studies classes.
Once the last test or final exam has been given, this is one way of giving the students a “break” while still having them think and learn by thoughtfully selecting the films.
Obviously, the film must be relevant to subject matter, thought-provoking and high quality. Two Denzel Washington movies, “Glory” and “Remember the Titans,” have fit the bill nicely over the years.
These films unite the young people in my classes behind a shared vision that can be found in both the best of the political left and right. In each movie, racial justice and reconciliation are realized by means of hard work and self-sacrifice.
In these appallingly polarized times, I find hope in seeing students of very different political perspectives uniting around shared values.
Self-appointed social media pundits and our nation’s politicians can be very hateful and divisive, and there’s not much that high school teachers or students can do about that.
However, in room BU04 of my high school, we try to unite around what the flag we pledge to every morning represents: one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
The last two years, the young teacher down the hall has persuaded me to show “Glory” at Christmas break, just after covering the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film tells the story of the most famous African American regiment to fight in the Civil War: the Massachusetts 54th.
Students see a young Denzel Washington as Silas Trip, a former slave who wrestles with his duty as a soldier for an army that, while fighting for his freedom, still treats him as second class. He doesn’t trust his white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), and refuses Shaw’s intended honor of bearing the flag for the regiment.
I first saw the movie 30 years ago, and the most memorable scene for me was when Shaw has Trip flogged for desertion. Washington’s Trip stares Broderick’s Shaw down during the flogging, with a single unforgettable tear escaping from one eye.
By the end of the movie, Trip has channeled his rage into the martial virtue of a great soldier. In the end, Trip, Shaw and the regiment die together for a “glorious” cause: union and justice.
“Remember the Titans,” set in early 1970s Virginia, is what I show at the end of the second semester.
Washington plays Coach Boone, who has been given the seemingly impossible task of uniting the white and Black players on the team in the service of a common goal.
Behind Boone’s disciplinarian leadership, as well as the inspirational friendship of team captains Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), the team overcomes enormous adversity and racism to win a state championship.
All the characters in each movie must struggle, strive, sweat and even bleed to overcome racism and to carve out their own piece of the American Dream.
In so doing, they become the people they yearn to be – and the role models that all my students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or partisan political leanings can emulate.
While watching the films, my students are rooting for the good guys, and they agree on who the good guys are.
Southern white Trump supporters, African Americans and Latinos are all saddened when African American soldiers die in battle against Confederates, and they find joy in the triumph of the Titans.
The movies help them “remember” times when seemingly hopeless division was overcome through “glorious, titanic” struggle. When asked what they like about the movie, they use words like “noble” and “courageous.”
It gives me hope that, with moral leadership, we can once again be the United States of America. It also suggests that we share more values than we realize, and that the ties that bind us are ultimately stronger than the walls others build to try to divide us for the sake of their own gain.
My students see the injustice in the movies for what it is and are inspired by the self-discipline, hard work and mighty struggle to overcome.
Teaching high school students is a fulfilling vocation that, while sometimes frustrating, very regularly fills me with great hope. For 25 years, it’s been a good way to make a living and a great way to make a life by serving others.
We try to teach kids that good things come to those who work hard and that working hard makes us better people. We also teach kids that racism and injustice should be condemned and overcome.
Despite their different backgrounds and political persuasions, the kids agree on these shared values.
A classroom vision of hard work, justice, hope and unity has worked well for me over the years, and it has not been that difficult to get kids of every ethnicity, gender and political affiliation to buy into these values.
Thanks to Mr. Washington for exemplifying this vision in these two classic films.
McKenzie is a Methodist in Calhoun, Georgia, who teaches high school and holds a doctorate in political theory from the University of Florida.