Crotty's Kids, debuting this week March 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse at the South by Southwest (SXSW) confab in Austin, TX, is both a documentary film and an entertaining and educational "coming of age" film.
The movie, written and produced by James Marshall Crotty, follows the protagonist's exploits as he tries to help inner city Bronx high school kids master the art of policy debate. What we find in the film is more than a story on high school forensics and a teacher trying to break through to his students. The film chronicles a season of victory and loss -- debaters coping with adversity who compete while living near the poverty line -- but also follows the dreams of these young men.
James Crotty is a Forbes education columnist, an author and educator by training and trade. I first met Crotty as a Communications Studies student at Northwestern University where he took film courses. Along the way, he was also a student in Sussex, England, studying the arts and literature.
However, prior to college, Crotty was a champion debater himself -- competing at the National level from Creighton Prep School out of Omaha. He and his partner were the Nebraska State Debate Champs. Creighton's motto is: "Be a man for others," and that's the poignant underpinning of his film.
After Northwestern, he earned a master's degree in Liberal Arts from St. John's (The Great Books School) in Santa Fe New Mexico and Annapolis, Maryland. So the writer and protagonist of this film, who has also judged debate teams in New York and other cities, brings a great deal of academic heft to his calling. Guess what, all the training in the world at the finest institutions doesn't prepare this prepster academician for what he finds at the street level of the Bronx and the tough conditions under which his charges must compete.
The students are men mostly from tough social backgrounds, raised by single moms at homes in the Bronx. Debate is not particularly cool in South Bronx and Harlem high schools and the moms are also often nonplused by the elective endeavor. So in almost every case, Crotty becomes teacher, mentor and even father. Thus, the title of the film is really descriptive of the nature of the relationship. In essence, these Bronx students literally are transformed into Crotty's own kids.
Crotty's Kids has been selected for SXSW presentation this week under a category of Educational Films. Yet it's more than a study in teaching and the ways of persuasion. It's about the rights of passage we all face -- particularly fatherless men. Another insight on Crotty, raised by a busy and sometimes distant doctor in Omaha, is that he is playing out his own search for fatherhood, brotherhood and connection.
The beauty of the film lies in these real and raw connections. Crotty cajoles, teaches and basically busts the chops of his young debaters. He is able to draw the best out of his competitors because he has made that paternal connection. The debaters want to win just as any kid on the blacktop basketball courts of the Bronx want those bragging rights. However, the debaters also want to "win one for Crotty" and please this male figure who may be among the first who has taken a true interest in their lives.
I felt myself bursting with emotion. The film is exquisitely inhabited by Crotty and the rest of the Bronx Boys cast. Crotty is a master of crisp, insightful storytelling.
An interesting take-away, and this is a spoiler alert, is that many of the policy debaters are accepted to college but not all are able to attend. For financial and even cultural reasons, the ability to persuade colleges to admit them doesn't translate to higher education success. Some students find the "culture wars" and exclusive college society too hard to take. See also Ole Miss and University of Michigan.
It's one thing to win your policy argument. It's quite another to win at the inner human arguments and dilemmas that life has to offer.
James Crotty is the author of several books, including How to Talk American (MacMillan) which is also a linguistics text. He is a language expert and shows us all that the art of persuasion goes beyond the debate team. Crotty's Kids' ultimate persuasive argument is that young men from the Bronx can succeed and rise above their circumstances.
Resolved: "to view Crotty's Kids at [SXSW], or one of several films fests where it will be featured (including in his native Omaha) and to see this movie picked-up by a production company."
Crotty's Kids already has been optioned, and is about to be signee by Film Ideas in L.A. for educational market distribution. Debate coaches would do well to share with their own charges.
Mike Smith is a Northwestern grad, co-founder of America Free.TV and the Virtual Movie Festival and former debater in Fairfax County, VA.