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When director Jenny Mackenzie began working on her latest documentary, The Right to Read, it was a story focused on kindergarten readiness and pre-literacy. But once she met Kareem Weaver, a former educator and member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee, the documentary’s game-changing story clicked into place.
It’s an angle that doubles as a powerful and eye-opening challenge to much of the way America’s literacy crisis has historically been perceived and addressed. The Right to Read focuses on the civil rights work of Weaver, as well as the efforts of several Black and brown families in cities across the country facing lower literacy rates to ensure their children’s success in school and beyond.
But unlike past examinations of illiteracy among school-age children, the doc shifts its eye of accountability off of families with few resources and fixes it squarely on a more ominous and long-standing influence. “They’re othered. They’re blamed. There ‘aren’t dads who are in the picture,’ right?” Mackenzie says of the stereotypes Black and brown parents face around their children’s educational outcomes.
In The Right to Read, the director instead thrusts into the spotlight a decades-old battle over which educational framework institutions should use to teach children to read. Through that, she begins to unpack how an arm of the academic publishing industry has lined its pockets at the expense of the nation’s children and, ultimately, U.S. democracy.
It’s a jaw-dropping indictment on the historical and present failings of the country’s educational and political leadership. But it’s also a passionate call to action to remove the hold that the educational theory of whole language literacy has had on American education for a century; a theory that the documentary asserts may have never worked for any of the nation’s children, regardless of race.
To help tell this story, Mackenzie not only focuses on Weaver and his educational activism in Oakland but also on Sabrina Causey, an Oakland first-grade teacher who flew under the radar to give her classes a better shot at literacy, and a better shot at avoiding incarceration, homelessness and unemployment. She also follows several American families, including Teresa, Isaiah and their daughter Ivy Hunter, as well as Melinda Adams and Fred Adams, and their son Fred Jr. — all fighting to provide the most foundational indicator of life-long success.
The film, which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February and is screening at this year’s SXSW Edu on March 7, can be watched for free at therighttoreadfilm.org, where it is available to stream until March 9 at 11:59 p.m. PT to celebrate National Read Across America Day.
Ahead of its SXSW Edu premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Mackenzie and executive producer LeVar Burton about how they approached changing the conversation around the cause of America’s literacy crisis and the modern threats to reading access that Black and brown children are facing.
Kareem Weaver is a central character in this with his work in schools through the NAACP. Why was he one of your pivotal central characters and arguably the through line to connecting all of your ideas?
JENNY MACKENZIE We met Kareem a year and a half into the filmmaking process and it was pivotal. We went into the process thinking we were going to make a film more focused on kindergarten readiness and pre-literacy, and what parents could do at home. Especially, we were looking at educational technology tools. You meet Ivy’s amazing family and Frederick’s amazing family, who are trying to do everything they can to set their kids up for success. Then we realized that kids were getting into the classroom and despite parents being fierce advocates for their kids to set them up for success in elementary school, if schools weren’t teaching reading correctly, the kids were still at super high risk.
So about a year and a half into the filming, we met Kareem through a literacy coach in Oakland and we heard about his work as a foot soldier with the NAACP. It just was so clearly this hero’s journey of someone who had been a teacher and a principal, trained principles, had his own health concerns, lost his father and said: I’m coming back to do what I’ve been called to do in my own community,” which is to create big change. You said it perfectly. He was that throughline we needed to connect us to the families we’re advocating for for all good things for their kids and their futures.
You argue the way the U.S. school system predominantly teaches children is ineffective, and that is why our children are not literate. How did you arrive at that conclusion and angle for the doc?
MACKENZIE Emily Hanford is an incredible investigative journalist and she has done four podcasts focused on early literacy and how children learn to read. Her latest podcast was just published in October, I think, and she has just been uncovering all of this research and data that we’ve had in place for decades about how children learn to read. But she originally uncovered the story because she was looking at adults who are dyslexic, and that’s my story.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 14 years old. Really, I had shame. I was very much in the closet, but I came from a family that had resources and I was able to cover it up. And I was able to learn ways to compensate and to get by. I got super lucky. My parents had the ability to get me tested, get me support, get me the resources. So that really caught me on fire listening to Emily’s podcast and understanding that if all children are taught the way in which we should teach kids who have any kind of learning disability, that is dyslexia-focused — which is very explicit, very systematic, step-by-step — then we would really create big change. So I think it was this combination of listening to Emily’s podcast, meeting Kareem and really looking at families who are doing everything they could to put in place successful tools for their kids to get to kindergarten, but then they still flounder.
You feature communities from all over the country and share the state of literacy in each place. How did you decide which communities to zero in on?
MACKENZIE We actually had a couple of families that we had to [leave out] in film production because we had too many characters. So we had other families who weren’t Black and brown that we decided not to include. First of all, a documentary can only handle so much information and we can follow just enough storylines. You hope you can win hearts and minds, and that it’s an opportunity for people to feel an experience by intimately walking into the lives of the characters in the film. But we had to leave a couple of characters out which was a tough decision. As soon as we met Kareem, I knew that with his inspirational activism — his whole storyline that literacy is our greatest civil right — that the story had to be about Black and brown families. Because that’s his work. So it made sense leaving Melinda and Fred’s family and Teresa and Isaia’s family in. We really tried to have geographical diversity — California, Virginia, we had a family in Utah, we had another family from a different part of Virginia and Mississippi.
Actually, Virginia is doing very well. Virginia has done some groundbreaking changes, especially in Virginia Beach, because they have implemented evidence-based reading instruction. So Teresa-Isaiah-Ivy’s story and what’s really happening in Virginia Beach set us up in a way to be able to say: Look, there are programs that are very effective, that are implementing the research and the data into practice effectively. We met Melinda and Fred and Fred Jr. at a time when they were in the middle of the Mississippi Delta and Mississippi was actually doing some great things. Mississippi has been a leader in this evidence-based reading instruction, but they couldn’t find work in the rural delta. They are both native Mississippians and they had to move out of state really economically to find work.
When Weaver and others interviewed in this doc say that children can’t read, what does that mean in its most basic form? That they can’t put the letters together on the page? That they can’t comprehend words contextually in a sentence even if they can sound it out?
MACKENZIE It’s a little bit of all of the above. This is something in my humble opinion that we should be screaming about from the rooftops. When we look at the Nation’s Report Card, which are those NAEP scores that we identify in the film, now 37 percent of kids are below basic. Below basic is complicated, but what it really means is they are functionally illiterate. They can’t read. And as LeVar said, “What happens to kids when they get older?” Well, then they’re illiterate adults.
Literacy, being able to become a critical thinker — which is what we hope happens once we get through comprehension, as you saw from the amazing Dr. Kymyona Burk who was looking at the five pillars of early literacy and how you build on those blocks — allows people to participate fully in our democracy. That means being able to fill out a job application. Not everyone is going to be a college professor. Not everyone is going to be an actor. But someone who is an electrician, someone who is a plumber, someone who has a blue-collar job, needs to be able to give bids, to read to figure out parts. We’re voting for our elected officials. We have to be able to read the ballot.
And I think that’s the big risk. When we look at literacy rates and those students who are below basic, the risk for a host of challenges that are lifelong is what they’re facing. They’re facing homelessness. They’re facing all sorts of mental health challenges. There’s an increased risk for incarceration. There’s an increased risk for teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts — we can go on and on. So if we want to focus on our democracy and our economy, and allow people to participate in our economy, this is costing us billions of dollars. It’s nonpartisan.
There’s a section in this doc that celebrates the work of shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company that were acting as supplemental teaching material outside of classrooms. LeVar, was supporting this literacy movement with Reading Rainbow part of your goal with the show?
LEVAR BURTON It wasn’t a conscious part. It sort of became a de-facto part of the work that I did with that show. I am acutely aware of the value of representation in the media and I have for the whole of my career been able to, through a lot of my work, address the issue. I saw PBS as a place where the work was being done. I was attracted to that and I was attracted to the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids — a positive difference knowing fully well having been born to an English teacher, the importance of a relationship with the written word. So it’s been a throughline in my career. As Jenny says, both literacy and social justice figure very prominently in my work over the past 48 years and this subject matter — this documentary in particular — is right there in my sweet spot.
Having been involved with the public literacy discussion for so long, can you talk about what you’ve seen change? And what hasn’t?
BURTON I’d like to think that I have been part of a movement towards utilizing technology in the service of educating our children. First, television technology. That was where our kids were in the ’80s: sitting in front of a television set. It’s why I reinvented Reading Rainbow as an app for the digital generation. Because that’s where information and the dissemination of information is moving — to the electronic realm and personal devices. I am interested in using whatever methods we can in the service of making sure that our children have the skills that they need; the survival skills they need to maximize their own potential in life literacy, being chief among them.
What we have tried to do with technology is take a child who could read and turn them into a reader for life. Because that’s the key. If you’re a reader for life, then you can self-educate. No one can pull the wool over your eyes. No one can tell you, for instance, that the election was stolen. You can pick up a book and take a look, right? You can research that shit for yourself. And as Jenny says, it’s critically important in terms of being able to participate in this democracy. So the idea that technology can be an aid and have huge assistance in the service of this responsibility that we have as adults in society, I’m all in because I’ve seen it work.
You directly link the policies and practices of American enslavement to the state of literacy for various racialized communities in America at one point. Why did that feel like an important element to include?
MACKENZIE That scene I think is so pivotal and important, and this documentary was a project of deep collaboration with our amazing editor, Chelsi Bullard, and Kareem, who also is a producer. This is really his story. I wanted to get this right. I wanted him to be involved. This has been a unique journey for me as a filmmaker, and I’m white. So for me, making this film as someone who is a civil rights and social justice champion, I wanted to make sure we got it right. And our brilliant editor, Chelsea said: You know, we’ve got to figure out how to really tie this in a visceral way to what Kareem is saying when we look at the history of the NAACP, the work that they’ve done and the fact that this is not a new problem.
And what I feel was so serendipitous is that Kareem had just used the Alabama slave code in a presentation that he had done. Chelsea, who is from Memphis, originally, started working through it. I have a very diverse crew and it just came together. I said, “Kareem, my God, I think we have to quote the Alabama slave code. I think we need to see it. I think we need to see it and we need to get it. As you’re talking about the history of the NAACP and the work that they’ve done.” Because, this is not a new issue. And it is something that has been happening for not just decades, but centuries. And, shame on us.
BURTON The irony is not lost on me that I come from people for whom it was illegal to know how to read just a few generations ago. I would have been whipped certainly, maybe even put to death for having the facility of literacy. And to have grown up and become a literacy advocate in this country, in this culture is particularly meaningful to me and my family.
You capture something that feels undercovered and little-known, and it’s the literacy wars and the reality that there’s an entire industry making money at the expense of kids’ literacy. Can you talk about that?
MACKENZIE Well, there’s a huge underbelly that Emily Hanford exposes in her podcast. So you have six hours’ worth of material there. But the piece that was so critical for us, that I think Kareem speaks truth to power on, is really the fact that many of the curricula that have been used for decades have really not been researched with diverse populations. They have been tested on predominantly white kids from certain socio-economic strata. And when you really look at robust, rigorous, valid research that comes from an educational curriculum that is going to be used to teach our babies to read, it needs to be evidence-based and research-based, and tested with a very diverse group of people to know that it’s effective.
We naturally know how to speak. We’re born knowing that language will be acquired and we will learn to talk, but learning how to read is a complicated neuro-science task. It has to be done in a very explicit way. So I think some of these publishing companies have used the same old-same old, and used in-house data where they have not taken a new company that has come in and done a study that we would say has validity or rigor in the research world. To me, I think LeVar used the best word of all a couple of weeks ago when he said, that’s criminal.
There’s a moment early in the doc where Kareem discusses having to fund a classroom library. It’s a brief moment, but the topic of access to books is an important one around children’s literacy and something under threat in certain states. How important is that aspect in the larger conversation to protecting literacy?
BURTON One of the reasons that I love this documentary so much is because it locates this problem in the area of civil rights — that early childhood literacy is a civil rights issue. And through that lens, we really see the inequities that we have perpetrated on our kids. These are our kids and we are choosing not to do the best by them, simply to, as you say, line the pockets of a few folks. And I do believe it’s criminal between the Betsy DeVos’ of the world, who are trying to privatize public education and call it choice to the publishers who are governed by and sort of controlled by Texas and Florida because they buy most of the books and so they get most of the say in terms of what gets published.
We’re not making these decisions based on what’s best for our kids. And we weren’t making that decision when we started to play with the methodology of how we teach our kids to read. So, this is a documentary that is trying to be a part of a conversation. And yes, the wholesale eraser that is going on through the banning of books, or the attempt to erase truths, based on whatever personal preference is, is driving the agenda. We need to shine a light on that. It’s all a part of the same problem: the disenfranchisement of American children.
Talking about Black and brown children, there’s also a complicated history with the American book canon, which is historically exclusionary in terms of representing them, and if or when it does, it can do so in a prejudiced way. That came up with the recent discussion of Roald Dahl’s books. Do you feel edits that are more respectful of kids are needed?
BURTON I will say when you know better, you must do better. We know better. Now we know the negative impact of a lack of diversity and a lack of diverse voices in media of all nature, books included. So we know better. We must do better. It’s just that simple. The old ways no longer serve. They didn’t serve then. They served, but they served a narrow band of the population. They didn’t serve everybody. And in a democracy that is supposed to uphold these rights for all citizens concerned? We just got to do better.
MACKENZIE I feel as though representation and seeing oneself in the world as a child, and who you can be and what the possibilities are, is probably one of the most critical experiences a kid has in terms of seeing their future — as a queer person, as a person of color, wherever they are on the gender continuum. For me, learning from women, seeing stories about women who are succeeding, who have done things, and who have experienced their lives, has been pivotal. And we know that how we are impacted and how we learn in a social learning theory way is by seeing others who represent us. So I think there’s so much excitement on the horizon as we continue to share news stories, change stories, and show that kind of representation effectively in books and in films.
You’ve spoken already about democracy as having a pivotal relationship to literacy, and at the end of the doc, you show a group of citizens who are challenging current teaching methods with political leadership. Why was this one of the ways you wanted to close out your doc?
MACKENZIE Change has to begin in our own tiny corner of the universe, right? And the real takeaway here, I think, is that literacy is freedom. It is the ultimate freedom. It’s the freedom of the mind, the body and the soul. So, for me, I think our film is about activism and advocacy. You see these families who are advocating for their children and you see the amazing inspirational Kareem Weaver, who is an activist and he’s fighting not just for his children, his blood children, his own children, but every child that he’s ever taught and every child that’s a part of his community. So that’s why. Because literacy is our greatest freedom and that’s what we have to do. We have to change things in our own corner of the universe, and hopefully, then policy will follow, but we can’t wait.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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