A "golden ticket," or a passport to shame?
In The Prep School Negro, premiering tonight on WHYY's Y-Info digital channel as part of the America ReFramed series, filmmaker André Robert Lee takes a look back at his experience as a boy from "the ghetto" who won a scholarship to Germantown Friends School. Established in 1845, and considered among the most prestigious prep schools in the country, GFS was "a quick bus ride away" from Lee's West Oak Lane rowhouse, a home he shared with his mother and sister.
A quick bus ride, and a world apart.
The Prep School Negro is at its best as Lee, who went to the high school at age 14 and graduated in 1989, discusses the culture shock he felt, and the awkwardness, returning to his neighborhood each day. Lee says he would actually change clothes on the way home.
Lee talks to Joan Countryman, the first African American to graduate GFS (in 1958). He interviews black students currently enrolled at both his alma mater and Penn Charter School, garnering frank and often emotional appraisals of their struggles to be considered part of the fabric of their schools, and yet maintain their own cultural and ethnic identities.
Students in a social studies class examine issues of race - and the burden minority students can feel, a burden it's hard for some of the white kids to even comprehend.
While shooting his documentary, Lee, who lives in New York, returns to his childhood home, where his mother is seriously ill. The family crisis changes the pivot of his film - it becomes as much a personal saga, and a quest for connection (with his mother, his sister, and his estranged father) as it is an exploration of the challenges of assimilation in a privileged, predominantly white, institution.
But the two strands of Lee's film intertwine, in revealing and heartfelt ways.
The Prep School Negro
8 p.m. Tuesday, Y-Info (12.3)