(Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
MISS VIRGINIA— 4 STARS
One does not have to dig very far on an internet search to find pressing current issues in American’s public education system. In an eye-opening and apropos way, there are so many that Education Week magazine maintains an active A-Z list to sort and track them. You could sing “The Alphabet Song” and ring a bell on just about every letter for matching examples from the real-life inspiration of Miss Virginia chronicling the emergence of school advocate Virginia Walden Ford.
Punctuated by an assertive and impressive performance from Orange is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia details the cement roots movement that grew from one woman’s humbling and arduous beginnings fighting for better schools in the crime-stricken neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. If you are a parent of a child in school, no matter if it’s public, charter, private, urban, suburban, rural, or anything else, you owe it to yourself to absorb this kind of tangible and topical story and remember those who had and still have it harder than you.
The year is 2003 and Virginia is a single-mother trying to raise her son James (This Is Us ensemble member Niles Fitch) safely and make ends meet. Through disengagement and bad peer influences, James has become a failing and truant student at his underfunded and mismanaged local high school. At the “focus on the ones that want to be here” hand-wringing consequence nearing expulsion, Virginia tries to muster up enough earnings to send James to a safer, progressive, and enriching selective enrollment private school nearby. When Virigina cannot afford the $7000 tuition bill even on a second job as a custodian for an uppity local politician Lorraine Townsend (the prolific Aunjunae Ellis of If Beale Street Could Talk and When They See Us), her son tumbles back in the dangerous public school.
The wider Virginia searches for help or solutions, the more hurdles and pitfalls she discovers. Venal politicians in different pockets keep antiquated and ineffective policies in place. Community support is a challenge against brow-beaten despondency and gang control. But she believes and she builds.
LESSON #1: BE HEARD — This lesson may be the center of its tagline, but it is spot-on for the necessary initiative. Sure enough, one petition signature at a time, one knocked door at a time, and one microphone opportunity at a time, Virginia impassioned pleas begin to garner sympathy, support, and larger gatherings, including the attention of Congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine). One woman’s lament becomes a movement of many, one that still churns today.
LESSON #1: KIDS COME FIRST — The main rallying call on the protest posters in the movie fits a fine goal to take outside of the theater and into the mission field of our classrooms. Virginia’s efforts weren’t for personal gain. They were for her children. There is indeed a point where school conditions deny children the right to learn. Few things bring communities together better than a successful school. Improve them to become a beacon more than a trap.
Along that lesson’s line, what is wonderfully positive about Miss Virginia is the mindful moderation of glory-hounding in the picture. Uzo Aduba is forceful and the speechifying is high. She deserves high praise for her poise and presence in this inspiring leading role. Also, yes, this movie exists to celebrate the real-life figure Aduba is playing. Nevertheless, the overarching compassion of the titular woman, through the words delivered by the stellar actress, stay on the bigger message and greater goal of Lesson #1. The weight of the issues is not overwhelmed by the light of any hero worship, and that is a rare and appreciable trait among biopics of this sort.
Surprisingly in a film of this class and size, there is real weight to the issues and surrounding drama. Grim honesty is evenly balanced by the soft and sure optimism slowly filling each stakeholder of this historical reflection. The striving spirit is stirring and the capacity for empathy for its causes is formidable. With teen-friendly content, go ahead and show a movie like Miss Virginia right in our at-risk classrooms. Present a victory where others are needed.
Miss Virginia is the feature debut for director R.J. Daniel Hanna and screenwriter Erin O’Connor. He comes from editing world and she from the ranks of executive producing. With solid acumen, keen location shooting, and steady support, they can proudly stand by this first effort. The formula used may be simple, complete with a dollop of a Hollywood-ish pivotal climax, but the effort and dedication is as true as the deserving light being shed on the unvanquished history at hand. Quietly with every tear and loudly with every megaphone in protest, this becomes one of the finer films on advocacy in recent memory.
Let a movie like this do better than get you curious. Let it get you mad. Let it get you fired up to make sure your own community does a better job with its current and future generations. Deny or ignore these bigger needs no longer.
LESSON #3: THE STRUGGLE IS NOT OVER — You may hear many speeches in several circles of discourse, from pundits and politicians to parents and porch swings, that will call equity in education the civil rights issue of our time. They wouldn’t be wrong in that concern. Remember, this movie critic is a school teacher by day. Miss Virginia is just one story of many that could be told. When over 40 states out of the 50 in the union spend double or even triple the amount of money per inmate in prison versus each pupil in a public school, the systemic misalignment of bad policies and worse cycles is all too clear.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#834)