HIGH SCHOOL II, Frederick Wiseman's follow-up to his landmark 1968 documentary, HIGH SCHOOL, is a thought-provoking portrait of Central Park East Secondary School, a nationally recognized, alternative public high school in New York City. Lengthy but rewarding, HIGH SCHOOL II comes close to
restoring one's faith in American public education.
May 1992. A remarkably diverse group of students attends classes at the East Harlem high school; some, concerned about their future, meet with parents, teachers, and counselors about going to college; others are involved in student government and other extracurricular pursuits. The teachers seem
honestly concerned about the students, particularly the young mothers and fathers who are returning to school to complete their education. Many of the teachers discuss how they can empower the students through classroom techniques. One faculty member (Deborah Meier) is particularly concerned with
quality-of-life issues, and tells the other teachers and administrators that a "powerful citizenry" can lead to a "powerful democracy." Central Park East appears to be fulfilling its goal of creating a powerful citizenry.
HIGH SCHOOL II offers a refreshingly positive look at a contemporary inner-city school. Wiseman's HIGH SCHOOL, his second film, presented a predominantly white, middle-class Pennsylvania school as an absurd but oppressive institution, largely devoted to ferreting out and crushing any signs of
individuality or independent thought among its hapless students. By contrast, HIGH SCHOOL II shows the multiracial world of Central Park East as an oasis of civility and hope in the midst of a mean, impoverished city.
Dramatically speaking, Wiseman sets a challenge for himself: how can a success story be made as interesting as one of failure? Certainly, HIGH SCHOOL II is less gripping than Wiseman's more celebrated examinations of the workings of American public bureaucracies (HOSPITAL, 1970, and WELFARE,
1975, as well as the original HIGH SCHOOL), especially given its protracted running time of nearly four hours. Even so, Wiseman's leisurely approach is rarely dull, and there are many scenes--dull-sounding on paper--that become thoroughly fascinating. A student organization debates the efficacy of
marching on City Hall following the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King; an all-white female choir from a Michigan High School entertains Central Park East during this "difficult time" (many New Yorkers expected local unrest in the aftermath of the
April, 1992 riots in South Central LA); two older students, both black, counsel two younger white students on how to resolve a conflict that led to a fight; a social studies class debates the pros and cons of granting sanctuary to refugees; a teacher demonstrates to other teachers her AIDS
training techniques (including putting a condom on a dildo); a teacher and student clash quietly over whether Christopher Columbus was a Renaissance man.
Remarkably, Wiseman's long-take, close-up verite technique never intrudes on the action (the absence of music and voice-overs is also appreciated). Except for one brief moment when a teacher looks away from the camera in embarrassment, the subjects seem oblivious to Wiseman's cameras and
microphones. Of course, not every set-piece is spellbinding: an English Department meeting about "empowering the students," for instance, is nearly as tedious to watch as it must have been for the actual participants. And Wiseman's uniformly upbeat movie makes it too easy to forget that Central
Park East, with its well-run and well-funded experimental program, is wildly unrepresentative of the New York City norm. On the whole, however, HIGH SCHOOL II is a vivid, memorable portrait of urban youth and education that consistently challenges viewer assumptions. (Sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: HIGH SCHOOL II, Frederick Wiseman's follow-up to his landmark 1968 documentary, HIGH SCHOOL, is a thought-provoking portrait of Central Park East Secondary School, a nationally recognized, alternative public high school in New York City. Lengthy but reward… (more)