Thursday, August 20, 2009

Philadelphia On My Mind

According to Wikipedia, the city of Philadelphia was once "the second-largest in the British Empire (after London), and the social and geographical center of the original 13 American colonies." It played host to the First Continental Congress (1774), the Second Continental Congress (1775), and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Philadelphia (which, from 1790 to 1800 served as the nation's first capital) is the home of the Liberty Bell and numerous other icons with patriotic significance. Historical sites include Independence Hall, the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, as well as the homes of Betsy Ross and Edgar Allan Poe. The legendary ocean liner S.S. United States (the subject of a magnificent documentary entitled S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting) lies rusting in a South Philadelphia shipyard.

Philadelphia has always had a strong cultural life. Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of America's "Big Five" symphony orchestras. Philadelphia claims to have more public art and more murals than any other American city.

In 1966, Barbra Streisand's television special, Color Me Barbra, featured a fashion/fantasy segment shot on location at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The steps in front of that museum became immortalized when Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the Rocky series of films. However, Philadelphia has always maintained a steady presence on stage and screen:
While Philadelphia may be nicknamed The City of Brotherly Love, not everyone has spoken kindly of it. Former Mayor Frank Rizzo once claimed that "The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it's only the people that make them unsafe." Native son W.C. Fields was famously credited with these three statements:
  1. "I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was a Sunday."
  2. "Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed."
  3. "Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia."

    "People see my current success but don't realize I've worked hard to get where I am," claims musician Kevin Eubanks. "I used to clean garbage off the Philadelphia docks and put a lot of time into developing my music."

    Even though Bruce Springsteen received the 1993 Academy Award and 1995 Grammy Award for Best Song for Streets of Philadelphia, in many parts of the city the streets are an environment young people yearn to escape. Two new films (one fictional, the other a documentary) show how people in different situations deal with the tensions of living in some of Philadelphia's grittier neighborhoods.

    * * * * * * * * *
    For certain students at Northeast Philadelphia's Frankford High School, the message is clear. That woman in room 325 may be tougher than the football coach, but she'll help you escape the ghetto and enter a world filled with opportunity.

    Having taught for 38 years, Wilma Stephenson begins the school year by telling her new students that "This is not your mother's home economics class." She then stresses the fact that the reason the previous year's class received over $750,000 in scholarship money was because they earned it.

    Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, Pressure Cooker shows what happens when adolescents who could easily end up working at McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or dealing drugs come into contact with a teacher whose personality quickly shifts between being a benevolent despot and a substitute parent. In an inner city school (where more than 40% of the students don't reach their senior year), Stephenson's pupils have the benefit of knowing that their teacher will move mountains to motivate them -- and will be rooting for them from day one (Stephenson also coaches Frankford's cheerleading team).

    Wilma Stephenson with Erica Gaither

    "Since I was a teenager I have been inspired by the incredible stories of the students who participated in the C-CAP program and its annual cooking competitions," states producer-director Jennifer Grausman (whose father founded C-CAP in 1990 to provide career counseling, job training, and college scholarships by working with existing public high school culinary classes across the country). Grausman grew up absorbing the tales of extraordinary achievement that her father would bring home from work.
    "The question for me was: How did this particular teacher turn out so many successful students? We went down to Frankford in June 2006 to interview Wilma. She was an incredibly passionate person and we knew we had found a great and complex character. Wilma seeks out kids who are ambitious. They start out with a goal and they achieve it. She can be cantankerous and she knows it -- but she will go to hell and back for the students who get with the program and show true promise as well as the hunger to succeed. Those who fall short of her discipline will not be missed. Many will drop out before the first week is out. She offers these kids her version of the American Dream: You choose a realistic goal. You work hard. You work the system. You get out of Northeast Philly."
    For those students who come from dysfunctional homes, having such a personality in their lives can make a world of difference. As this documentary follows students from the beginning of the year to their final examination (competition) and school prom, the audience sees students who have grown up on a diet of fast food and fried chicken learning how to broaden their palates, acquire marketable skills, and understand what perfectionism is all about.

    Frankford's culinary arts students at their final competition

    Pressure Cooker also serves as a valuable publicity vehicle for the C-CAP: Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which helps to identify, groom, and reward potential chefs by opening up doors to careers in hospitality and food service. Whether a scholarship allows a student to attend Rhode Island's Johnson and Wales University or a culinary arts institute in a different city, that money can change a young person's life. The film focuses on three particular students:
    • Tyree is a tough young man expecting to receive a football scholarship. While his mother hopes that Tyree can take advantage of opportunities that could allow their family to get out of Philadelphia, she has added help from his teacher (who works in tandem with Tyree's football coach to make sure his needs are met).
    • Fatoumata Dembele is a recent immigrant from the African country of Mali. Born on the Ivory Coast (her mother is from Burkina Faso), she had to walk more than 20 miles every day to go back and forth to school She came to the United States at the age of 14, without being able to speak English. Although her father has very traditional views about what a woman should or should not achieve (and would not hesitate to sabotage her future just to keep her in her place), Fatoumata feels that she can't ignore so many of the opportunities that have been placed before her since coming to America.
    • Erica is hoping to get a scholarship that will allow her to leave Philadelphia. Although she is often like a seeing eye dog for her younger sister Ariel (who is legally blind), she knows that unless she gets out of Philadelphia, she will be tied down by responsibilities at home.

    Culinary arts student/cheerleader Erica Gaither

    Often compared to a drill sergeant, Stephenson doesn't cut her students any slack. In an NPR interview with Michel Martin, she explained why:
    "I expect all of my students to come up, reach the sky and go as far and further than they could even imagine. All of them have cried. All the screaming and the hollering that I do -- and the throwing out of the food and the demanding that they do perfect work? Many of them have tried to quit, but I won't let them. I love them with all of my heart. They're music to my ears. They really are.

    I also believe that my students particularly are getting more science, math and sometimes English than they are in their regular science classes. They aren't aware that they're doing the percentages, the baker's percentage, and they're unaware that they're doing the fractions. They're unaware of the chemistry between the baking soda and why it's reacting and why the yeast is rising and why the carbon dioxide. They're unaware of it, but they are getting this."
    As Grausman and Becker learned while filming Pressure Cooker:
    "The kids are competing for much more than a trophy and the chance to be number one; they are working towards something that will literally change their lives. Our hope is that young people who see the film will realize that there are still practical models for success in this day and age, no matter how great the odds might seem. Parents will be reminded of how much a difference their support and encouragement makes in their children's lives. The general audience will see how teenagers can thrive if they are just guided toward the tangible opportunities that are already out there."
    Even so, the challenges of filming Wilma's students were daunting:
    "As filmmakers, we realized that the narrative appeal was more in Wilma's classroom than at the competition itself. We were not interested in the typical plot machinations of a competition film," says director-editor Mark Becker. "The true battleground for these kids is in her kitchen, and that's where the surrogate family develops. The reward of this kind of narrative approach is that, in the end, what we are left with is a film about the many shades of devotion.

    As for Wilma, I think everyone on the production feared her. She had a way of reducing us all to teenagers. Her philosophy at Frankford was always to command respect from her kids, and she by no means left this mode for us. There were times when we both had that sinking feeling like we were in trouble or something (like shooting a sensitive moment, or getting too close to her on a tough day) and neither of us liked being in trouble. We'd drive back to New York kicking ourselves, wondering if she would let us back in the kitchen. We were suspended from the kitchen a few times, but never expelled."

    * * * * * * * *
    While Pressure Cooker gives audiences an idea of what it takes to get out of Philly, The Nail: The Story of Joey Nardone shows what happens when someone is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in the slums of South Philadelphia. Directed by James Quattrochi, with a screenplay by Jason Noto, The Nail is not your typical boxing story any more than it is an inspirational "young grasshopper" experience like The Karate Kid.

    Tony Luke, Jr. stars as Joey Nardone, a former Golden Gloves winner who got his name because he used to be able to hammer nails into a wall with his fist. Joey once accidentally killed a young girl during a bar brawl. Once a lean, mean fighting machine, Joey's eight years of prison food have transformed him into a fat schlub.

    Tony Luke, Jr., as Joey Nardone

    Upon his return to civilization, Joey wants nothing more than to lead a quiet, honest life without any violence. Nevertheless, he finds himself surrounded by some of his old cronies:
    • Massimo (William Forsythe), an old friend who picks up Joey after he is released from prison. Massimo hates the thought of Joey doing menial work and would like nothing more than to have the ex-con once again provide the muscle for his operation.
    • Pete (Leo Rossi), the owner of the local boxing ring, who first met Joey when he was 14 years old. Pete, who is now training a new generation of boxers, also has a new employee named HiFi (Joe Pistone), who is like a walking encyclopedia of boxing statistics.
    • Chickie (Tony Danza), a sports promoter with a mean streak who derives immense pleasure from humiliating Joey.
    Tony Danza as Chickie

    When Joey moves into a decrepit slum, he discovers that his neighbors are a highly dysfunctional Puerto Rican family with a long history of domestic abuse. Amelia (Dayanara Torres) is a beautiful young mother subject to violent outbursts from her drunk and extremely macho husband (Billy Gallo). Their 14-year-old son, Jesus (Paul Orrantia) is constantly being bullied at school and is frequently beaten by his drunk father.

    At first, Jesus spurns Joey's attempts to help him. But upon learning that Joey was once a boxing champion, he takes a shine to the older man. It's hard to tell whose sense of need is greater.

    Tony Luke, Jr., and Paul Orrantia

    One look at Tony as he leaves prison gives the audience a strong hint that things will not go well. Despite the best of intentions, Joey meets a tragic end at the hand of Jesus's bitter father. Although there are moments which feel predictable, and sometimes almost cheezy, there can be no denying the fact that The Nail will keep you in its grip right up to the bittersweet end, as a 22-year-old Jesus becomes the new boxing champion.

    While the film has some mawkish moments, its basic honesty shines through and keeps the viewer involved. The Nail will be available on DVD starting September 4th. Here's the trailer:

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