Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning director and cinematographer known for his works The Waiting Room and The Force, where the former won an Independent Spirit Award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award and the latter won the 2017 Sundance Director’s Prize. Peter Nicks has a B.A. in English from Harvard University and his master’s in journalism from UC Berkley.
Peter Nicks’ newest film, Homeroom, is the third installment in his documentary trilogy that centers around the community of Oakland, California. The Waiting Room, the first in the trilogy, was about showcasing America’s healthcare system in action – or, in the case of the public hospital that it takes place in, the inaction. The second in the trilogy, The Force, follows the officers of Oakland P.D. while on the job, and specifically focuses on their relationship with the community itself. Homeroom follows Oakland High School’s senior class of 2020 and the trials that the students face – from college applications, the student council’s mission to get the education board to abolish the campus police, the Black Lives Matter protests, and finally, the emergence of Covid-19. This film is also dedicated to his daughter who passed in 2019.
These three films have been the culmination of 15 years of work that focus on the reality that many people in the Oakland community face – the inadequacy and bias of the healthcare system, the discrimination from the police, and the lack of resources for education. In Homeroom, social media – Instagram stories, TikToks, Snapchat, texts, etc. – is used as a medium to follow along the lives of the seniors because its the primary form of communication for most young adults and teenagers. Through the use of social media in the documentary, you’re able to get real-time glimpses into the students’ lives and follow them along as they battle with the Board of Education.
Before filming started, the students had already started to campaign to get rid of the campus police as they felt unsafe around the officers. Throughout the film we watched as they organized meetings with the mayor, meetings with the student council, and endeavored to get more student representation at the community meetings, in order for the Board to move forward with the proposal. When the Board members vote no for the movement to go forward, Denilson, one of the student Board members, admonishes the other members that they aren’t listening to the people they’re supposed to represent, and that it isn’t right for them to ignore what the students want.
The murder of George Floyd and the protests that occur after re-ignites the students’ drive to convince the Board to rethink their vote, however, this is also the time that pandemic goes from bad to worse. As the community moves into lockdown and the protests continue, the students are facing more and more challenges: finishing senior year over Zoom and the cancellation of prom, the inability to go and visit their friends, the fear and uncertainty of applying for colleges. With Covid-19 restrictions, it was difficult for the students to organize their rallies and meetings, but they persevered until they were finally able to convince the Board to overturn their previous position on abolishing the campus police force. Additionally, those funds were then funneled into the improvement of the community’s education resources. We also witness how the students feel about dealing with the SATs and the stress that it causes them on top of everything else.
The film doesn’t hesitate to highlight the inequalities that the students face and despite that, they still fight for their community, to make it better for themselves and those that come after them. Peter Nicks’ decision to include the social media of the young adults gave the audience insight to how these teenagers see the world and the influences that surround them – from music, to group events, even to misinformation on Covid-19. This film also highlights how the young adults of today’s society are a force to be reckoned with, and when they truly want to change things for the better, there’s nothing that can stop them.
After the film, there was a mediated discussion with Peter Nicks about himself and the documentary, where he gave insight to his creative process and the advice that he hope to impress on people through the film. Peter explains that his process for making this particular film started with The Waiting Room, and his decision to make these documentaries about healthcare, criminal justice, and education came from witnessing his wife’s work in the hospital and the issues that his daughter had been going through prior to her passing. He goes on to say that his first movie gained him attention in the community, but his second film The Force was received with mixed reviews, especially from the police force as it didn’t necessarily paint them in a good light. His style of no interviews in the film was inspired by Fred Wiseman and one of the reasons for filming like this was to achieve the “fly on the wall” point of view.
Peter was asked how he was even able to get access to a public school in 2019 and he explained his success with The Waiting Room led to community awareness, then he went to the school board to get their approval, but that the key was to get allies before going to those in charge so that there would be less roadblocks. With the emergence of COvid-19 and the first lockdown, Peter explained that they had to rethink the whole narrative; it drastically changed their approach, the focal point of the story, and it added a new level of uncertainty to not only the story, but everything as a whole.
Peter continued to explain that he wanted this documentary to get people to start redefining the way we measure potential. We shouldn’t base our societal merit on where we come from and what we have, but by the way we can contribute to our community and how we can improve ourselves. There is also the acknowledgement of how much society as a whole has changed – from the relationships that parents have with their children, to the relationship that we have with social media. In response to the question of bridging the generational gap, Peter said that maybe through social media and seeing how its used by young adults for a positive change can start to mend the generational gap of our society, that maybe it can be a way for everyone to enact change. Peter also hopes that through this we can look at education differently – that not everybody wants to go to college, that we shouldn’t base our students’ worth on a test score.
After watching these students go through the battle for change within their community, face the challenges of graduating high school at the start of Covid-19, and the uncertainty of life as a young adult today, yet keep their heads up high and come out the other side winning, it gives us a bit of hope.
Homeroom is out on Hulu on August 12th.