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TV & DVD Review: The Marva Collins Story (1981)


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This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.

Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.

The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.

In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.

The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.

But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.

Rent or Buy The Marva Collins Story


Happy Birthday, Elvis

Elvis_(1979_film)For Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’ve reviewed ABC’s outstanding 1979 telefilm, Elvis (click on image to buy the DVD). Read the review here. Whatever one thinks of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll, this is an exceptional movie.

TV & DVD Review: Frasier (First Season)

Frasier1One of television’s best comedies, Frasier, premiered on this date in 1993. Boston psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), featured as a subsidiary fall guy on NBC’s Cheers, spun into his own series in the same year that Cheers ended its long run. The stereotypically uptight intellectual character on Cheers is differentiated from its previous incarnation and deepened here in the first season. Frasier moves back to Seattle and settles into a modern apartment in the fictional Elliott Bay Towers. He starts a new job as a talk radio host.

Frasier’s retired policeman father Martin (John Mahoney), a Korean War veteran recovering from an injury, moves in, too. Physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) is hired. Psychiatrist brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), in spite of his marriage to unseen socialite wife Maris, fixates on Daphne, who claims to be “a bit psychic”, while Frasier’s salty producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin) looks daggers, quips here and there and goes on a date with a station geek named Noel. It is in the first season that Martin hosts the apartment’s first unexpected overnight guest. Ex-wife Lilith visits Seattle. Frasier Crane is nominated for his first broadcasting award.

That Frasier listens to and seeks to help people seeking good health underscores the show’s unspoken secondary theme that to feel good is to think, actively think, about life and pursue happiness with effort. According to the DVD’s features, Mr. Grammer insisted that his character’s line of work be taken seriously and not treated as a joke. This approach sets Frasier apart from its contemporaries, such as NBC’s Seinfeld, the “show about nothing”. Frasier is the show about everything; everything meaningful, everything wonderful, in all its hilarity, agony and elation.

The first season unveils everything that defines Frasier: the swank apartment, its Space Needle view, the patio overlooking the city, the piano where he plays music, his dad Martin’s ugly old chair, Cafe Nervosa, KACL, the first RV trip, his father’s poker game, Bulldog the brash sports host, Gil the effeminate food host, Noel the nerd, Bebe the wild-eyed agent, glasses of sherry and a quirky dog named Eddie. Frasier, who struggles with (and consciously accepts) the reality of middle age, obsesses in one episode on dying and crashes a Jewish death ritual, where his neurosis is outdone in droll, dark humor. He makes connections, he learns, he makes progress.

In fact, longtime fans looking back at this first season will appreciate how carefully conceived the stories are and how lead characters contemplate, grow and improve. The psychic from Manchester, crabby ex-cop, pretentious younger brother, sharp-tongued tart and hapless title character, a Charlie Brown like figure who is fundamentally searching for happiness, are each in plain sight during season one, which begins with jazzy opening credits and ends with Kelsey Grammer singing about egg on his face.

One of the best series subplots, the repressed relationship between Niles and Daphne, begins here with the season’s best episode (“A Midwinter Night’s Dream”) which involves a storm, a predisposition to act on infidelity and a Glockenspiel clock. This episode is an example of Frasier‘s masterful writing, staging and acting. As the first episode to feature the mansion where Niles resides with his heiress wife, the organic setup of forbidden romantic conflict, which begins at Cafe Nervosa when Daphne flirts with an artist who works there, adds tension and builds to a humorous climax and thoughtful conclusion. In it, one sees each character choose to renew and thus act upon his values – Niles on his vows, Daphne on her desire, Roz on her kindness, Martin on fatherhood and Frasier on his loyalty. The play is slow, taking time to earn audience trust. The payoff is both illumination on each of the five characters and the domains they inhabit – home, work, cafe – and a tantalizing piece of warm, benevolent humor ending on the promise of more to come.

Frasier’s flaw is a tendency to ham amid contrivances. Sometimes, however, life seems contrived. In this sense, Frasier’s first season sets the standard for the series theme – painfully concretized with the murder of its co-creator David Angell by Islamic hijackers on 9/11 – that life is neither easy nor automatic and that one’s paramount purpose is to achieve happiness here on earth. This idea is evident in the beginning of the 11-year comedy series (especially for those who remember the choice Frasier makes in the series’ finale) with Frasier, in the premiere season’s final episode, sitting solo in Cafe Nervosa after finally and truthfully answering his brother’s question “are you happy?” (“My Coffee with Niles”), a sincere, unmolested and bittersweet moment which foreshadows the end of Frasier’s run.

Viewers learn more about the show through DVD features, too. But the best part of Frasier’s first season is seeing a man who strives – consistently, valiantly, and one might say heroically – to act in his self-interest. Frasier (1993-2004) is a first-rate comedy in the first year. The show ages well, with an even greater reward for those who know where Frasier ends up.