31 January 2006 | vchimpanzee
Fine job with inspiring family film
In this Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation based on the real-life experiences of Pat Conroy, the fictional Conroy gets an opportunity to teach poor black children on Yamacraw Island in Beaumont County, South Carolina. Dr. Piedmont (Frank Langella), the county school superintendent, has recently been put in charge of the island school, once supervised by Mr. Bennington (James Murtaugh). His attitude intimidates Conroy, who imagines he is being criticized by his demanding marine father. Still, Conroy gets the job.
Despite the fact that he is engaged to Barbara (Julianne Nicholson), who has a daughter Jenny, Conroy will have to live on the island accessible only by boat. And only Zeke runs a boat to Yamacraw; no one else dares try to navigate these waters. Once on the island, Conroy meets Ted Stone, a war veteran who is police chief, fire marshal and pretty much everything else. His wife Lou drives the school bus and also serves as the postmistress and, for lack of a better word, librarian (the only books are about war, donated by Stone).
The year is 1969, but the isolated Yamacraw School lags far behind mainland schools, despite the best efforts of Mrs. Brown, the principal, who serves as the other teacher. Mrs. Brown commands respect and expects everyone to follow the rules, but Conroy soon realizes that while they are intelligent enough, the children don't seem to be learning very much. For a black woman, Mrs. Brown doesn't seem to have a much higher opinion of the black children's potential than the whites on the mainland.
Mrs. Brown insists on following the state curriculum and will not tolerate letting the children have fun. But Conroy gets the best results with the children when he does what we now call 'going outside the box'. Bennington, who is now deputy superintendent, is willing to let Conroy get away with some things, but Mrs. Brown and Dr. Piedmont do not approve, and the children's parents have their doubts as well. Conroy discovers audio-visual equipment that has been stored and never used (incredibly, there is electric power here), and since he was fired from his last job as a teacher and basketball coach for favoring the black players, he knows basketball and teaches the boys to play.
One cultural element that don't get much screen time was the Gullah dialect and culture. These days, a lot of attention is being paid to preserving this mix of African and English. Mrs. Brown wants to discourage this, but the kids do well in a brief scene speaking Gullah, from what I could tell.
Jeff Hephner does quite a good job and is easy to like as Conroy. Alfre Woodard gives her usual fine performance. The children also do quite well. It is amazing that in a place like this the kids are so smart, but they have demanding parents and guardians. LaTanya Richardson stands out as Edna, who is raising Saul (Cole Hawkins). Among the children who impress are Ivana Grace as Ethel and Rodney Reid as Prophet.
This is a family film with a minimum of offensive content. Conroy went to military school and his marine father used bad language, but what is heard here won't likely offend. Parents opposed to corporal punishment won't be happy, and kids won't like seeing other children paddled, but that's about it.
The scenery around Yamacraw Island is beautiful. The setting of the real-life Conroy's experiences is Daufuskie Island, though the filming was actually done around Wilmington, North Carolina.
I never saw 'Conrack', which was also based on Conroy's novel about his real experiences, but I would like to now. This was a fine effort, if overly idealistic.