Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010

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Unsung Heroes, Untold Stories

Unsung Heroes, Untold Stories
André Lee '93 talks with Candace Taylor '13, right, and Wynndee Reese '13 about their prep school experiences as dean of multicultural affairs Elizabeth Garcia looks on. Photo by Brandon W. Mosley.

As they shed light on struggles large and small, two alumni filmmakers hope to inspire a new generation

By Franz Ritt


When Michael King '75 and André Robert Lee '93 screened their latest films at the College during Fall Weekend, it was more than just a homecoming. It was an opportunity for the two documentary filmmakers to inspire a new generation of students.

King's documentary, “The Rescuers,” examines the roles that 12 international diplomats played in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Lee's “The Prep School Negro” is a personal reflection on Lee's experience as a talented black student at a predominantly white preparatory school in Philadelphia.

Although the subjects may be worlds and decades apart, there are common threads. Both directors cast a critical eye on the present moment — they pull no punches when comparing the history with the still-extant problems of racism and genocide around the globe today. And both see young people as a primary audience for their work, and an opportunity to spur dialogue about racial and cultural issues.

A tribute to silent heroes

What interested me was the 'mystery of goodness,'” King says of “The Rescuers.” “What makes some people do good and others not?”

That question is the foundation of his documentary, and King tries to answer it by examining the actions of 12 diplomats from around the globe who forged visas and other documents to try to get Jews, intellectuals and others out of the reach of the Nazis at the height of World War II. Some of them paid a severe price, losing their positions and even their lives.

In “The Rescuers,” King follows Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert and Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire as they travel across present-day Europe, learning about these diplomats from survivors and others who knew them.

“These people had families and careers, but they all went against their governments and neighbors to do what they thought was right,” King says. “They were Jews, Quakers, Catholics, Christians, Muslims and Nazis. What made them decide to do this? Would you or I be willing to risk that? That just seemed extraordinary to me.”

King hoped screening the film in his hometown of New London would encourage students to find what they are passionate about and get involved. After graduating from New London High School and Connecticut College, the government and economics major worked in finance analysis for the Ford Motor Co. But, he says, he was a little too rebellious to make a long-term commitment.

“I woke up one day working for Ford and asked myself, 'What do I really love? What do I want to do?' The answer was movies,” he says. It seems he's found his calling: King won an Emmy in 1999 for his documentary on American youth violence, “Bangin.”

“The Rescuers” ends with Nyombayire returning to Rwanda to look for modern “rescuers” who worked against the 1994 genocide in that country. This was an essential part of the film, King says, because the problems the film touches on are not just part of the past, but the present as well. King hopes young viewers can identify with the 23-year-old Nyombayire as an example of how they can make an impact even on global problems.

“I wasn't really interested in doing the film without a young person like Stephanie involved,” King says. “I wanted to connect it to them and things they see in the world. If I can inspire them, that's great.”

Psychological homelessness

André Lee also believes his film speaks to young people. “The Prep School Negro” is a personal documentary examining the “psychological homelessness” that he says he endured and that other black students face when admitted to elite, mostly white preparatory schools.

“This film really has been a way for me to reflect on things I didn't have the words for at the time,” Lee says. “But when I show it to black students in prep schools, they tell me that it's exactly the feeling they have.”

Lee was born into a black, lower-middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. An excellent student in elementary school, he earned a full scholarship to Germantown Friends School, a prestigious and predominantly white Quaker prep school in the city. “The Prep School Negro” revisits his teenage years and also captures the experience of current students of color at his former school. What emerges is a picture of isolation for minority students in prep schools.

“In this community, I'm considered real black,” one student says in the film. “But in another community, my neighborhood, I'm considered a white boy. I go to private school.”

Lee works with a group in northern California called Compass, which coined the term “psychological homelessness” to identify the experience of students who, for reasons of race, class or cultural differences, feel like “others” in school. Attending a private school can place tremendous strain on family relationships as well — so there is never an environment where they feel they can be themselves.

“When I heard the phrase, I understood it right away,” says Lee, who never fit in completely in his neighborhood because he did well in school. Getting accepted to Germantown Friends only exacerbated that division. When he decided to attend Connecticut College over the University of Pennsylvania, this feeling was still part of him.

“I chose Connecticut College because I thought it was a place I needed to be,” Lee says. “I felt like I needed a smaller school for support. It was great and tough. Germantown Friends forced me to create my own environment, but I found a community at Connecticut College I could relate to and understand.”

Living away from Philadelphia wasn't an easy transition, though. In the film, Lee says his mother was distraught that her son was leaving — it was completely out of the ordinary in his community to leave home, especially to go to college. The rifts didn't end with college, and his feeling of separation stayed with him.

“I loved the schools I attended,” Lee says. “I felt very disconnected from my family as I went deeper into the private school world. I was welcomed … but I was always a guest. I did not feel I had a base I could turn to and feel true connection, love and support. Luckily, through making this film, I have learned that the base was in front of me all along.”

Lee travels the country screening “The Prep School Negro” at schools and, before Fall Weekend, had just completed his 83rd workshop with the documentary. He and his team have created a curriculum for school presentations; one of the questions asks students to examine the title and think about what feelings it provokes before seeing the film and then after viewing it. The workshops, he says, “help people express the internal dialogue we all struggle with.”

“I think we're at the beginning of the conversation,” Lee says. “Each time a child comes up to me in tears and thanks me for telling our story, I know I have a purpose.”


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