3.1 Outline: Texts and Methods
At the unit's center are three films that explore community from the perspective of strong female protagonists: Crooklyn, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Winter's Bone. Although all three films deal with communities that are based largely on geography and proximity, socioeconomic pressures reinforce norms and shared values. Additionally, students will analyze themes across these texts noting similarities and differences in the cultures being depicted.
Students will be required to experiment with a variety of social media, many of which they will undoubtedly have greater experience with than myself and many others within the teaching profession. In researching appropriate tools for classroom use I have encountered the website nhv.org. The site offers the following, "The truth about Facebook is that as a publicity platform, it is not quite reliable and can be unpredictable because of the selective algorithms that determine who sees what. The way that the content is curated can sometimes make it difficult to rely on, when you're trying to promote awareness of an event".
Crowdsourcing as a means for collecting and promoting ethnographic material may be more effectively accomplished using other free web-based tools such as Twitter and InstaGram, which somewhat ironically has been acquired by Facebook.
Spike Lee's Crooklyn from 1994 is the oldest of the three, a period piece centered on the struggles of a working class African American family in 1970s Brooklyn. This film may be for the lack of a better term "the odd man out." But why? Community is clearly at the heart of the narrative, so much so that the title is a riff on its location both geographically and culturally. Its urban locale has appeal and is easily identifiable for a good many of my students. The film takes some time to establish Troy as its protagonist as it establishes the neighborhood as a character in its own right. The opening credit sequence is an ethnography in and of itself with its vivid rendition of urban life in the streets.
Benh Zeitlin's Academy Award-nominated film from 2012 The Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a fictitious rural "freegan" society; although, the characters Hushpuppy and Wink are clearly not vegan, they and the other inhabitants of this bayou community referred to as "the Bathtub" are "people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources…. embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed."
Although bell hooks is scathingly critical of Beasts in her blog post "No Love in the Wild," I disagree with her assessment that it is poverty porn that simply perpetuates negative stereotypes based on gender and race. In viewing the film with students, many have raised the question, "Why?" Specifically, why would anyone choose to live like this? And, why are they (the inhabitants of the Bathtub) so resistant to the help (and control) of "civilized society"?
These are important points of contrast between the Hushpuppies and the Rees of the world. Ree, the protagonist of Winter's Bone, is not a member of a society with Utopian ideals. Her Ozark mountain community is plagued by poverty and hopelessness. Regardless of the situations these characters find themselves in there is a shared sense of belonging and of "home." At times in her film, Ree longs to break the cycle of poverty by joining the Army. There is a particularly poignant scene where she is interviewed by a recruiter, who in the end advises her that the greater challenge and her charge is to stay and put her house in order. This raises important questions about community and community building, as well as self-preservation versus the "common good."
What exactly are the implications of a community needing help from an outside institution or agency to keep the proverbial house in order? What supports should a teenage girl have? Should all teens be protected from neglect? If so, how and whose responsibility is it to provide for both the physical and emotional well-being of teens? Family members, both immediate and extended? What happens when care givers become ill, infirm, or are incarcerated? Then whose responsibility do teens and other dependents become?
The mother in Crooklyn is a teacher; however, that particular film takes place during summer vacation rendering the institution of school absent. Of the three films discussed at length Beasts is the only one that portrays formal education as being both desirable and of value. Depictions of school in Winter's Bone are limited to shots of a life-skills class in which teens are taught how to care for infants and of student ROTC members marching through the halls with their drill rifles.
The police and other "outsiders," such as the "relief workers" in Beasts, are generally portrayed as antagonistic interlopers disruptive to the natural flow of the community. Police in Crooklyn are only seen taking Vic the Vietnam Veteran away in handcuffs after he intercedes in the dispute between Troy's family and the white neighbor Tony Eyes. Similarly to Troy's disapproval of this action is Ree's physical recoil when the sheriff shows up to interrogate her invalid mother as to the whereabouts of her crank cooking father. Within the Ozark community in Winter's Bone the dominant belief is that "talking just causes witnesses and he [Thump, the patriarch of the holler sic and presumed kingpin] don't want none of those."
3.2 Details: Sample Lesson Plans
3.2.1 Community in Spike Lee's Crooklyn and in Connecticut
Part One: Memory Writing- although not instantly apparent Crooklyn is a story told from a child's point of view, a bildungsroman of sorts
; therefore, a memory writing exercise is appropriate.
Students are required to list up to ten memorable incidents and encouraged to include their earliest clear memories. Once a list of events is generated, students place them in chronological order. Next, they are to add descriptions concentrating largely on sensory details. Finally, students construct an episodic narrative of the events. Although my experience as an English teacher often shapes the types of products I ask my students to construct, this being a film course begs the question of whether or not the written word is the most appropriate format. Rather than tying students to one type of output, students may use a variety of means to convey their narratives including audio files and Vines (Vine is a social media application that allows users to construct and share seven-second video clips that loop). Individual Vines may be connected and easily searched by using a single hashtag.
Part Two: Change with Me- this is both a community/team building exercise and a kinesthetic activity, a variation on musical chairs; however, it requires more mental activity on the part of participants and avoids "elimination."
Students form a circle with a "caller" in the center. The caller makes a "Change with me if…" statement. Students who answer in the affirmative must then change positions; the student unable to fill a vacant spot in turn takes over the role of caller. In Intro to Film, I often add categories to make this exercise more content specific. Here our focus is community, so rather than asking students to use a simply film related statement such as "Change with me if you laughed while watching Twenty-two Jumpstreet," I might start with a statement such as, "Change with me if you have a library card and have used it in the past thirty days."
Storytelling, Traditional Linear Narrative Structure, Episodic Vignettes, Point of View
Critical Viewing #1: The Opening Credit Sequence
Before viewing I will remind students to think back to both the sensory details and types of events they described in their earlier memory writing exercise. In their research logs/field journals they are to record observations paying particular attention to setting. In these first few minutes how does filmmaker Spike Lee establish a sense of community?
Mapping: In small groups students create maps of their neighborhoods and larger communities using the opening credit sequence as a model. Students label areas of importance esp. meeting areas, recreation spots with and without specific purposes, institutions, homes of prominent community members etc. Maps may be hand-drawn, collages, or multi-media. Note: each group member should have either a hard copy or electronic access to a copy of the map for homework purposes.
Students conduct interviews with one or more community members using their small group-generated maps as a basis for inquiry. Student researchers introduce their maps to interviewees encouraging their subjects to comment on and add to these primary source documents. Interviews may confirm importance of institutions and community members as well as reflect change over time.
Materials and Resources
Spike Lee's Crooklyn DVD or as of the time of this publication available as rental or purchase via Amazon streaming. Netflix is DVD only.
Internet access and recording equipment (may include student owned smart phones and cameras) for construction of narratives and maps.
3.2.2 Norms and Taboos in the Ozarks according to Winter's Bone and in Connecticut according to You
Norm, taboo, or both? In small groups students discuss the following scenarios especially as they relate to acceptability within defined groups and populations:
1. An individual cuts and pastes text without crediting an appropriate source.
2. Students discuss a work of literature while taking an English examination.
3. An individual informs someone in a position of authority about a wrongdoing by a peer.
4. A student uses an anonymous app to report bullying.
5. A student is recognized as being exceptional for conforming to previously established norms and expectations.
6. A small group of students are regularly disruptive to the learning and inquiry of the rest of the class; the disruptive students are obsessed by juvenilia and are regularly marking one another's written work with primitive representations of genitalia.
Review of diegetic and non-diegetic sound
Tone and mood
Students working in small groups compare and contrast the opening scenes of Lee's Crooklyn and Granik's Winter's Bone. Although taboos and norms play a large part in both communities being represented, we must remember that one of our aims is to explore how shared socio-political realities transcend geographic proximity. Consider how both filmmakers establish a sense of place.
How do they use sound (diegetic and non-diegetic) and image to convey both place and community values?
Next, students are to review lists of significant events they compiled during their study of Crooklyn. After considering how both Lee and Granik use non-diegetic sound, music specifically, to convey tone, students create playlists that appropriately accompany their events.
Interview a community member. Have him or her create a short list of significant life events. Next, ask her to think of at least three songs that would act as an appropriate soundtrack. Research at least one song. In writing analyze why or why not it seems an appropriate choice.
Materials and Resources
Access to both Lee's Crooklyn and Granik's Winter's Bone
3.2.3 Utopian Ideals and Community in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Here at Metropolitan Business Academy
Now that you have completed your viewing of Zeitlin's Academy Award-nominated film in small groups you are to consider whether the Bathtub fits your definition of a utopian community. What factors contribute to or detract from its status as such? Why might its inhabitants/community members embrace it?
PechaKucha (see Section Four: Assessment for more detail)
Review of utopia and dystopia
Although students will be working in pairs to support the development of individual presentations, each and every student will ultimately be required to present her slideshow. In addition to assembling twenty slides (each to run for twenty seconds), student presenters are to have a well-developed and rehearsed script. Even though this is film class, PechaKucha is meant to be an engaging public speaking exercise, not simply a short film presentation.
Students must include in their slides and scripts a clear relationship (may be either points of comparison and or contrast) between elements of one or more of the films covered in the unit and her chosen community (e.g. Metro at large, a club or subset of the school population, the student's own neighborhood etc.).
It is recommended that individual students spend no less than six hours preparing for their presentations. Preparation is to be documented through the writing of three one-page reflections: the selection of slides, script development, and the selection of primary and secondary source material (this includes film elements in support of your ideas).
Materials and Resources
DVD or streaming access to the film Beasts of the Southern Wild
LCD projector and Microsoft PowerPoint or similar slideshow presentation software
Copies of the Film Comment article "Louisiana Story"