Director Peter Nicks just wants people to listen to kids.
“Homeroom,” Nicks’ Hulu documentary about Oakland High School’s senior class of 2020 and their fight to disband the school police department, sets out to do just that. It’s the third in a trilogy about the city’s social institutions, after 2012’s “The Waiting Room” about Highland Hospital, and 2017’s “The Force,” about the Oakland Police Department.
When Nicks started shooting the vérité piece, he didn’t know what kinds of stories the 17 and 18-year-olds would have to tell him. He just knew he wanted to make a film that would reveal “the emotional lives of students.” But after meeting the school’s two “student directors,” who represented their classmates’ interests in front of the school board, he began to understand the student body in a way he hadn’t expected.
From there, the film’s characters began to emerge, namely student director Denilson Garibo. A senior at the time, Garibo was fighting alongside his peers to make the district school board see how much harm the Oakland School Police Department was causing the students. After many losses, including the start of the pandemic and major cases of police brutality nationwide, Garibo and his students prevailed: the Oakland Unified School District passed the George Floyd Resolution to eliminate the school police department.
“Homeroom” is dedicated to Nicks’ daughter Karina, who died of a drug overdose at age 16 early in the production. Though the film doesn’t make mention of her explicitly outside of the dedication, her influence is felt in the film’s central themes: how much young people need resources and to be listened to.
Nicks told Variety what makes Gen Z different and how his filmmaking approach overlaps with “The Breakfast Club” director John Hughes.
You had planned for a while that the third film in your Oakland trilogy would be about education. What led you to focus on police presence in schools specifically?
Well, the fact that we discovered that one of the things that they were fighting for was to get the police out of the schools. We didn’t know that. We didn’t choose the school because of that. We chose Denilson as a character because he’s a student representative on the school board. I felt that he would take us someplace interesting. What we wanted to do initially was explore the different archetypes of young people. So not just student leaders — the dropouts, the losers, the jocks, the disaffected, the kids who are dealing with emotional problems, the nerds. We wanted to explore that spectrum — similar to what they did in “The Breakfast Club.”
Then we realized that Denilson and his group of student leaders have been working since day one to get the police out the schools. And George Floyd happens. All these things collided and we realized that that was going to be the dominant thread movie.
Tell me more about Denilson. How did you land on him as the central “character” of the film?
I noticed [Denilson] when we weren’t in conversations with him. Because initially, it was no cameras, just conversations, meeting kids and introducing ourselves to them. We would see how he was relating to his friends, and I saw something there. He wasn’t super withdrawn. He was very outgoing — a lot of kids are withdrawn socially. Ultimately, you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you turn the camera on, whether somebody retreats, but we saw something there.
We didn’t fully understand [yet.] His power, that was only revealed later. In fact, one of the critical moments was the first time we filmed with them, which was after this crazy board meeting that they had. We filmed in the room at the school board meeting, but we wanted to capture their reaction to it in an intimate way afterwards while they were outside by themselves. We had to approach them and ask for permission, and they didn’t say yes at first. They were very cautious. And we recognized in that moment that these kids were different. They were very strategic. They were very thoughtful. They were thinking things through. And that we had to get their respect. Something that clicked at that moment, a mutual respect, when they made the decision to allow us and we recognized that we couldn’t just do whatever we want. These were kids that we’re going to make their own choices.
Because this is a vérité film, you’re never able to address the audience and explain complex ideas that might be new to them, like why someone would want to disband a police department. You can’t wait for the audience to catch up on that concept. So how did you approach building the narrative without over-explaining what was on these kids’ minds?
It’s always a challenge. I don’t think people fully understand how difficult vérité filmmaking is until they’re in an editorial meeting. It’s so complicated because you cannot articulate the specificity that sometimes audiences want. You can’t hand-hold audiences the way that sometimes they want to be hand-held, in terms of understanding fully what’s going on. But you just have to proceed with confidence that the ambiguity, as frustrating as it may be, is ultimately the most illuminating thing. Because in life, there’s ambiguity. In life, there’s complexity. You don’t always have all the questions answered. What you’re trying to get at is some feeling of intimacy or authenticity that allows the audience to see themselves and the world around them differently, and help us build empathy and be able to see each other differently.
Young people feel, today more than in previous generations, that they’re misunderstood. And that they are in possession of skills that aren’t captured on an SAT score or a GPA or determined by the college that they go to. And they’re gaining all these skills and information and knowledge from each other. In spaces absent of any adults. On social media.
Obviously, there’s a lot of downside to that, too. This is what we dealt with with our daughter who passed away at the beginning of filming, after an eight years long battle with depression and substance abuse. She learned how to cut online. She found a community of other kids who were depressed, talking about suicide, validating each other in this other way that’s very dangerous. And there are no adults in there to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
Those two things are happening simultaneously. So we have a generation of young people who are coming of age in this misunderstood way. And I think this cohort, this group of kids — our [own] kids, that kid Greta Thunberg, the Parkland kids — who understand something that adults do not about their own agency. The power of their own voice. So that relationship between young people and the notion of education has fundamentally shifted. And that’s another thing that we were wanting to allow the film to communicate.
And the fact that this [movement] happened. It wasn’t surprising that Breonna Taylor was killed, that George Floyd was killed, that Ahmaud Arbery was killed. That wasn’t surprising. What was remarkable was the collision of that with COVID. These had so much taken away from them. And these are kids who have had things taken away from them and have been dealing with generational trauma forever. Gun violence, poverty, school-to-prison pipeline, housing insecurity, food insecurity, racism. And then here you have COVID, taking away their ability to walk across that stage and celebrate that threshold. Taking away their ability to go to prom. Taking away their ability to perform the school play. And nevertheless, they were able to find their voice. And that was astounding to me. That was something that we really wanted to share with the audience. And also to remind them, these are kids who aren’t all going to graduate. These are kids who are getting 660s on their SATs. These are kids who don’t check all the boxes that we’re asking them to check to prove their potential in life. Yet, here they are.