With his new documentary Rapping with Shakespeare, director-producer Michael King delivers a heart-warming film about one teacher’s mission to reach his students through literature. The film follows five students at Crenshaw High School: Myles Thompson, Adam Juneau, Joanna Cruz, Esephany Lara, and Emmanuel Cortez. A predominantly African-American secondary school in south central Los Angeles, Crenshaw draws its students from rough, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods riddled with violence and gang rivalries. Victims of a school system that has failed them, the students have no reliable role models. Andy Molner, however, a Crenshaw English teacher, tries to engage his students by incorporating rap and hip-hop into lessons about Shakespeare. The students examine their struggles and triumphs through the lens of Shakespearian characters, and manage to connect with Shakespeare because of the bard’s enduring themes, like murder, violence, betrayal, and infidelity. All of these issues dominate the real lives of the students themselves.
Molner makes connections between hip-hop figures and Shakespeare’s characters in order to help his students not only understand Shakespeare from a unique standpoint, but also to teach moral lessons about the implications of street crime. Rapper The Game, for example, was attending a prestigious university on a basketball scholarship until he began selling drugs and was eventually caught and sent to prison. Macbeth, also, was unsatisfied by his successes, eventually setting off a irreversible chain of violence. From an academic perspective, both of their downfalls were their ambitions, but drawing parallels between The Game and Macbeth also teaches students that joining a gang has the potential to lead to a life of despair and hardship.
At times, the film is successful in capturing the essence of high school in south central L.A. and the violence involved. However, the film’s subjects are exceptional students with high academic performance, who do not represent the struggles of the majority of the student body. Though all of the students featured in the film have overcome difficult obstacles or been subject to violence, they are Crenshaw’s rare success stories, and do not account for the majority of the area’s population. Upon close scrutiny, the film’s politics don’t quite add up, and its original focus dissolves into soap-operatic tones toward the end. Despite these shortcomings, however, King manages to pull off an inspiring tale about literature’s potential to do good.
Rapping with Shakespeare screens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on October 8 at 9:15 p.m., October 12 at 3:30 p.m., and October 13 at 1:15 p.m.