NEW YORK – Oakland filmmaker Peter Nicks had already made two well-regarded documentaries capturing the flawed institutions of his city and their role in shaping local lives: 2012’s “The Waiting Room,” about a public hospital, and 2017’s “The Force,” about the Oakland Police Department during a wave of shootings and protests.
To complete his Oakland trilogy, Nicks turned to Oakland High, a public school with a diverse student body of mostly Asian American, Black and Latino children. Nicks’ interest wasn’t just in rounding out his city-surveying series. It was personal. His teenage daughter, Karina, had been going through a difficult time. In making a movie about the hardships of growing up as a teenager of color in Oakland, he was, in a way, making a movie about her.
“A lot of films have explored the inner-city high school experience. I was more interested in something akin to ‘The Breakfast Club’ but for kids of color,” Nicks said in an interview. “A lot of that was driven not just to complete the trilogy, but we had really been struggling with our daughter and we’re a family with resources. Navigating the mental health system was very difficult, and I started thinking: What’s it like for families without resources?”
Just as Nicks was beginning filming in September 2019, Karina died suddenly at the age of 16. He decided to keep going with the film, even though that meant immersing himself in the lives of kids a lot like his daughter. The movie, “Homeroom,” is dedicated to her.
“It was hard. The essence of it is holding your grief and holding the beauty that these kids represented and why we were there and what we were trying to capture. Having those two things coexist simultaneously was just something I had to get used to,” says Nicks. “The one thing I do carry and hold very dearly is that this is a film that honors her spirit. She was really like these kids in the film. In whatever way she’s doing it, she’s been pushing us along because it’s a miracle the film ever got finished.”
Yet “Homeroom" got made, through personal tragedy and pandemic. The movie, which debuted Thursday on Hulu, won an editing prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is executive produced by “Black Panther” filmmaker Ryan Coogler. It follows a class of students through a school year that, for a while, bears no sign of the cataclysm to come. Figuring he had some time, Nicks was just narrowing down to the kids that would be the film's central characters when the pandemic hit the Bay Area. One student is seen disinfecting a bag of Cheetos. Soon, the students are sent home.
“I had the name picked out years ago. The fact that the kids ended up in home at the end was kind of serendipitous,” Nicks says of “Homeroom.” “Shortly after that it was like: What are we going to do? How are we going to possibly finish this movie? Are we going to do it over Zoom? That was a shock, but it forced us to look at what we had captured.”
Nicks and his crew discovered a rich thread. Since the beginning of the school year, some students had been working to have police removed from the school campus. Their presence, they argued, was an impediment to a good learning environment, and potentially triggering to those who lived with the threat of police brutality.
Nicks dug into the footage that had once seemed a more minor plot line. When many of the students took to the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd, “Homeroom” became a portrait of 2020 in microcosm: A year interrupted, then a galvanizing sense of purpose.
“Homeroom” takes a verité approach -- “Wiseman with words,” Nicks calls his style, referencing the pioneering nonfiction filmmaker Frederick Wiseman -- predicated on intimacy. He wanted to stick rigorously to the perspective of the kids: “No adult voices at all,” he says. “Zero. Like Peanuts: Wah wah wah wah.”
Most of the students as seen in “Homeroom” aren’t headed to Ivy League colleges, and their intelligence isn’t likely to register chart-topping SAT scores. But by patiently observing them, “Homeroom” shows the smarts, social-media savvy and strength of a multiracial generation in the midst of finding its voice.
“We have a distorted sense of how we judge potential in our society,” says Nicks. “These young people aren’t going to Harvard and Yale for the most part and they’re not getting perfect scores on their SATs, and yet they’re in possession of these remarkable skills and resilience that will serve them extremely well in life.”
Nicks plans to continue to focus on Bay Area stories — including a just-announced documentary on Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry — with his production company Open'hood and Proximity Media, a company he co-founded with Coogler. In a statement, the fellow Oakland filmmaker calls Nicks “a master filmmaker with an uncanny ability to bring us closer to subjects that are important to our social fabric but so often overlooked.”
On Hulu, “Homeroon” will sit alongside both "The Waiting Room" and “The Force.” But Nicks' wife, Vanna Sivilay, and son, Paolo, haven't seen it yet. It's too difficult.
“What the kids did in that movie, those are things my daughter will never have the opportunity to do,” says Nicks, remembering Karina marching as a young girl in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “These kids leave you a lot to be hopeful for.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Nicks on a second reference.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP