On February 11th, HBO screened “WE ARE THE DREAM: THE KIDS OF THE OAKLAND MLK ORATORICAL FEST” under the historical roof of the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Opening its doors for the night to celebrate the cast, crew, and history of Oakland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Festival, the Theater hosted a grand party. Though a screening in technicality may not be a party, the exuberant energy of the people there made the magic palpable, more specifically the heart of the documentary: the kids made the magic palpable. HBO’s documentary follows the story of the 40th Annual OUSD Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Festival, held in Skyline High School in Oakland, California. Closely following the students’ preparation and presentation at the festival, director Amy Schatz and crew masterfully showcase the heart and light of the Oakland community.
The documentary helmed by Schatz’s Emmy Award-winning directorial eye was produced and created with a team effort with producer Diane Kolyer, head of HBO documentary Lisa Heller, and executive producers Mahershala Ali, Amatus Sami-Karim Ali, and Julie Anderson. Director of Photography Alex Rappoport provided the gentle yet strong sweeping shots of Oakland and its embodiment of art throughout the city. Music Composer Keith Kenniff blended melodies to mimic the hope and light portrayed throughout the film. With the aid of her Oakland crew, editor, and HBO family, Schatz and the team began their journey into the world of the Oakland Oratorical Festival.
Lisa Heller brought to Schatz and the crew’s attention of the festival after coming across previously posted videos of the Oratorical Festival and knew in that moment that this was the project to showcase to a larger audience. Working together with the Oakland Unified School District, Schatz and producer Diane Kolyer met Awele Makeba, the Oratorical Fest Producer and began to work with some participating schools. In interview with the Knockturnal, Amy noted that, “It was incredibly moving and inspiring to hear what these kids came up with and what they had to say. The original idea of the oratorical is to lift up children’s voices and what was so moving is to hear these kids thinking out loud about Martin Luther King and to hear what they had to say about their world”. It wasn’t just Martin Luther King Jr, that the kids had words to share for. The oratorical provided a stage for young girls to speak on influential black women, for children of immigrant parents to speak on the rights of refugees, climate change, and so much more. Although the thoughts may be of the children, they like everyone else still need help putting things together for the final stage. The Oakland Unified School District fully came together in the way the Oakland community truly shines for and that shine was very noticed as Schatz herself emphasized in our interview, “What the film shows is really how important teachers are to kids’ lives. I mean they really went above and beyond curriculum to work with these kids, to rehearse with them, to think about content, and to really get them to feel confident up on stage. I think the incredible thing about kids is, this is a rise up moment for kids. This is the time when kids are opinionated and they have thoughts about their world”. It is truly an understatement how “above and beyond” teachers and coaches went for the Oratorical Festival.
It is truly an understatement how “above and beyond” teachers and coaches went for the Oratorical Festival. The public speaking festival was founded 41 years ago by Donald Oliver, who wanted to not only honor the oratory skills of MLK Jr but to address the issue of students’ comprehension and fluency skills. Many of the teachers in the Oakland Unified School District honor that same vision to the utmost tee. The teachers come from a place of experience in terms of seeing the effects of marginalization and losing their voices. With curriculums already built to address current events in an educational way for young students, the festival allows Pre-school age, up until high school seniors, to develop and learn more about a topic that resonates within them. The documentary enlightens the public with tender moments of teachers uplifting students during rehearsal while creating the space for them to learn how to emote, how to connect, how to speak with tenacity. The most humbling moment of all is hearing the same teachers, and coaches speak of their kids with so much reverence and awe. Despite any nerves, the looks on their faces mimicked the looks on the parents as they lovingly watched the kids take steps in front of a camera, on a red carpet, and on the stage. Former teacher Winston Williams came out of retirement to coach kids again for this year and poignantly spoke about the fight in the ’60s to include Black history into educational curriculums and the years of it slowly being picked away. The Oratorical Festival allows kids of all ages to learn the multifaceted history present in America, emphasizing on black history, which unfortunately is held back from the spotlight many times. That same feeling of needing to bring back valuable history is reciprocated in William’s interview as he touches on his experience coaching, “I always try to do something new that’s not in the history books, to teach them more and more of black history because there’s so much. It’s a good vehicle for teaching a large subject area and the kids seem to really get into it. All nationalities seem to take a lot of pride in celebrating African American history”. This unity, this foundation that the teachers spoke of; wanting to learn, wanting to share that knowledge is directly reflected in the kids. Of the many there that night, there was never one feeling of loss in a competition but rather glee for the next opportunity. The conversation could be with Lamiya voicing her opinions on wearing the hijab as a symbol of freedom for it is a choice, or with Lovely to talk about her father teaching her the world is her stage and to never be afraid to use her voice in all places, or with Gregory Payton expressing his favorite moment was to emulate MLK Jr in all his grace but for the public to go beyond him and learn all the greats. In any moment of conversation, the children became the teachers, and we the public, the HBO crew, and the producers became the students in awe. This was not only my feeling but for producer Diane Kolyer as well as she shared her thoughts in our interview:
“You don’t get many magical things handed to you in your lifetime, and that’s what this was. This was really a gift to be able to plunge into and to engage in this world that I didn’t even know existed.”
Whether you are new to the oratorical world or a fellow Oakland community member participating in the years-old tradition, “WE ARE THE DREAM” makes adults want to bring out the child in their spirits because these children truly are the brightest stars and pave the way into their generation. The sentiments of executive producer Mahershala Ali clearly carried to the audience as he said to us all, “The children of Oakland, the parents of the children, and these teachers & instructors because you are the caretakers for our future. These kids are our future and they give us hope and I’m telling you when you see this documentary, I hope and trust that it will resonate with you and you will hope for our future because these kids are special and profound and intelligent and beautiful and cultured. I believe this city could be a real leader for our future”. This city is one of the leaders of our future, and HBO provided a heartwarming platform for the world to see on February 18th. It is beyond time to be enlightened by the children and to be taught through their care and voracious courage for the future. Once again Amy Schatz delivers a piece enrapturing the audience with a product that is peaceful, bold, and full of Oakland magic for the world to feel like we all did some nights ago.