“I don’t want a job, I need a career,” declares one of the subjects of Night School. The statement effectively sums up the emotional impact of Andrew Cohn’s (Medora) documentary chronicling three African-American adults working over the course of a year to earn their high school diplomas. Feeling particularly relevant these days because of the ever-growing obstacles faced by less-educated people struggling for economic gains, the moving film depicts the American dream in action.
The cinema verite-style documentary introduces us to 31-year-old Greg, a former drug dealer and single father to an epilepsy-afflicted young girl; 26-year-old Shynika, reduced to living in her car due to her low-paying fast-food job; and 52-year-old grandmother Melissa, who just needs to pass algebra before she can fulfill her longtime goal of receiving her diploma.
All three enroll at Excel Center, an Indianapolis learning institution whose students are nearly all black and which offers the opportunity for them to receive actual high school diplomas, rather than the G.E.D.s that only provide limited employment opportunities.
The film’s most dramatic arc concerns Greg, whose brother continues to deal drugs and feels no regret about quitting school and eschewing a legitimate job. During the time Greg is pursuing his studies, he faces such setbacks as discovering that he has an arrest warrant against him for a pending charge involving driving with a suspended license; dealing with the aftermath when his brother is shot; and missing classes when his daughter suffers a seizure that sends her to the hospital.
Shynika, who dreams of becoming a nurse, becomes involved with a group attempting to organize fast-food workers to fight for higher wages, while the desperately lonely Melissa meet a man at a bus stop with whom she seems to have an instant connection.