Betsy Cox delivers an urgent message in a twenty-year-old story….still in the making. This is not a film about Washington, DC, or political ideologies concerning education, though its socioeconomic undercurrent is critical in establishing the odds of the era. This is a film about people and what they are capable of when afforded the opportunity to pursue something meaningful.
“Southeast 67” didn’t even begin as a documentary, but when writer/producer/director Betsy Cox heard the stories that photojournalist KK Ottesen had gathered for research on improving school outreach programs, the names and faces behind the statistics suddenly became the crux of her project. Destined to influence the conversation on education reform, twelve individuals reunite with the two teachers who most influenced their lives–and vice-versa–through the “I Have a Dream” program. A quick history: Back in the ‘80s, hotel mogul Stewart Bainum, a child of the Great Depression who never attended college, recognized that DC’s public school system needed a major shot in the arm. So, he sponsored sixty-seven random 7th graders with the aim of forging them a path to college. Within the walls of Kramer Junior High School (now Kramer Middle) in Anacostia, a detached and generally impoverished section of Southeast DC, would be its genesis. (A handful of students would later relocate to the recently closed Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio). Bainum’s plan—which to describe as an outreach program would be like calling Stephen Hawking a math tutor—was spearheaded by program coordinator Steve Bumbaugh and director Phyllis Rumbarger from 1988-1994, through the height of the crack epidemic. In Bumbaugh’s words: “It was arguably the worst public school system in the country”.
Beautifully shot and seamlessly cut by DP Ryan Hill and editor Bob Kanner, “Southeast 67” features previously unseen footage of Anacostia circa 1990 (contributed by ex-Washington Post photographer Nancy Andrews and British documentarian Peter Forbes, who had a reel or two from a previously scrapped project tucked away somewhere in Portugal), overlaid to the rhythms of go-go music. This was a time when ninety-seven percent of 8th graders failed to meet national proficiency standards in school, a secondary concern when one in twenty-four would be murdered by age twenty-four.
Despite the myriad disheartening facts in Cox’s chronicle, the director doesn’t regurgitate Google-able data for the mere sake of describing how bad these kids had it. “Southeast 67” is an inspiring documentary, compellingly optimistic with an objective that is not lost on idealism nor spoiled by cynicism. The 72% graduation rate is only a partial measure of the program’s success, the real impact made by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger impossible to quantify on a spreadsheet. It is, quite simply, a story of good. The good that people can do, the good that they can be, even the good that they are when doing bad things. Some of the students took a dangerously circuitous route to their dream. For example, Antwan Green—a dead ringer for actor Idris Elba, I can’t help but mention–dropped out of the program in favor of the very lucrative crack trade, but is now a happily married father of two who runs his own successful trucking company. Anyone watching him for two minutes can see that he is inherently more suited to the latter. Tenille Warren, who relentlessly pursued her dream of being a fashion designer while tending to an alcoholic single mother, has completed a program abroad at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Florence, Italy and (at the time of shooting) is headed back to NYC to graduate. She never skipped a beat.
Teachers, mentors, saviors, even informal surrogate parents to some, it’s hard to describe these educators as anything but rare. Deep down, the soft-spoken Bumbaugh, who grew up in the south side of Chicago, is a soldier; like the late Bainum, he is anti-failure. His first day at Kramer was sobering: as a 23-year-old teacher, he’d barely made it through the front door before he was breaking up a fight, his dress shirt bloodied. By the end of the week, he knew what he was up against. And it wasn’t his students.
A Rosebud Film Festival showcase nominee, “Southeast 67” will be playing at 6:35 PM on Saturday, January 30th at DC’s Navy Heritage Center.