We’ll get to the high point — the explosive reception so far for filmmaker Kevin Shaw’s irresistible Chicago documentary “Let the Little Light Shine” — in a minute.
But first, a long-ago moment of reckoning.
Late 2003. The film: “National Treasure,” starring Nicolas Cage. Then in his early 30s, already with considerable experience working on sports documentaries for ESPN, Shaw served as a Directors Guild of America trainee on that Disney movie.
“Four different locations throughout New Jersey and Lower Manhattan,” Shaw recalls. “Eighteen, 20-hour days. My job was to assist the assistant directors, do the production report, get lunches or dinners for people, and get lambasted for getting anything wrong.”
One night, “at the end of, like, 20 hours, I had to go back to the production office somewhere in Little Italy, I think, and someone tells me the crew needs something to eat. So I look for someplace open, and in that area, at that time of the night, or early morning, there was nothing. But I find something.”
After a while, “I turn in the production report at the end of the (shift), and I’m waiting for the train back to New Jersey. There’s one other guy at the other end of the platform. Just me and him.” They both looked spent. And a little bit lost.
“And I’m thinking: What am I doing? This isn’t filmmaking.”
Shaw finished the gig, gave up his trainee path and his immediate hopes of DGA membership. He dove into freelancing. Years and many projects later, he and his wife and their two kids relocated from New Jersey to Bolingbrook, the southwest Chicago suburb, to be close to Shaw’s recently widowed mother. (She died earlier this year.)
After a lengthy correspondence and several got-anything-for-me? conversations with “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James, Shaw got hired as a segment director on James’ 10-part Oak Park and River Forest High School docuseries “America to Me.”
The gig took a full year; editing took another one. But it was gratifying. Upon completion, James, Kartemquin Film’s Gordon Quinn and New York-based filmmaker Ramin Bahrani sponsored Shaw for Director’s Guild membership.
“So. I’m in the DGA after all,” he says, grinning.
Now, the 48-year-old Shaw has made a documentary (his second full-length nonfiction film) that inspired whoops and roars of approval, copious tears and certifiable standing ovations in its world premiere at the True/False film festival in March, in Columbia, Missouri.
Eleven hundred rapt and then hollering fans, packed into one theater? That, says Shaw, was the career peak that he’d been climbing toward a long time.
“Let the Little Light Shine” opens its first weeklong engagement in Chicago Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s a fiercely concentrated call to action, a tale of how the pre-K-through-8th-grade Chicago Public School known as National Teachers Academy, located between the Near South Side and Chinatown, outmaneuvered Chicago Public Schools and city officials’ plans to convert the spacious, high-performing elementary and middle school institution, mostly Black and minority students, into a South Loop neighborhood high school.
What CPS framed as a “transition,” the NTA community saw as a racially biased school closing, rushed through CPS and City Hall without meaningful community involvement. The city’s plan was to move NTA students into uneasy cohabitation with the South Loop Elementary students in a new K-through-8 building facility bearing the SLE name.
The optics were stunningly lousy. Even though SLE’s student body was and remains majority Black (a fact not mentioned in the documentary), the back-room machinations to convert NTA into a high school for students from the South Loop (more affluent, largely white families); near South Side (working- and middle-class, mostly Black and minority) and Chinatown was destined for a fight.
To NTA’s fight, Shaw brought his camera and enjoyed an unusual degree of access, filming NTA’s struggles, strategy sessions, hallways and interviews with students, faculty and then-principal Isaac Castelaz. The filmmaker learned of the NTA’s fight to remain an elementary school from a childhood classmate, Elisabeth Greer, now a professor at Harold Washington City College. Greer was named plaintiff in the Greer v. Board of Education case that was ultimately decided in NTA’s favor.
The neighborhood remains in need of a high school; the latest plans call for a new one to be built just south of NTA, near 24th and State Streets.
Shaw grew up in Calumet Heights and attended Morgan Park Academy in Beverly with Greer. A few years ago they reconnected on Facebook, and Shaw took note of her posts about her kids’ school’s fight to remain an elementary school in the face of what many saw as racially biased and motivated machinations to appease the South Loop neighborhood’s rapidly gentrifying population. There’s a film there, Shaw thought.
“Kevin just went ahead and did it,” says his Kartemquin colleague Steve James. The “Hoop Dreams” and “City So Real” director was an executive producer on the project. “He committed his time and energy to embed with the school, without knowing what would come of it.”
Along with all the other unknowns, Shaw and his colleagues weren’t sure about the final shape. Stand-alone documentary? Two-parter for a streaming platform? Three parts?
When the PBS documentary program “POV” picked up “Let the Little Light Shine” for a December 2022 small-screen premiere, the folks in charge encouraged Shaw to turn his nearly three-hour rough cut into … a lot less.
“That was a challenge,” James says. “I think it would’ve been a great three-hour piece if the decision had gone that way. Fortunately, Kevin solved it. He found a way to do what he could to represent the complexity of the NTA situation in less than 90 minutes.”
In the sleekly refurbished basement of Shaw’s Bolingbrook home, posters for “Star Wars,” “Black Panther” and Wong Kar-wai’s “2046″ line the walls surrounding the pool table and a screening room. The family dog, Gizmo, trots around, low to the ground (he’s a low dog), wondering why Shaw is talking to a Tribune writer and sitting for a Tribune photographer instead of paying attention to his dog’s needs.
Shaw’s first movie in a theater: “Star Wars,” when he was three. The first documentary that really made an impact on him as a viewer? “You know? It was ‘Hoop Dreams.’” The massively successful 1994 Kartemquin Films documentary, codirected by James, was also the second date and the first movie date for Shaw and his now-wife, Cristine, at the five-dollar theater in Lansing, Michigan. (They attended Michigan State and have two teenage children.)
“That film showed me the possibilities,” Shaw says. “My impressions of documentaries before that were more talking-heads, school-classroom stuff. But that was a moviegoing experience.”
The same can be said of “Let the Little Light Shine,” which played like a rock concert at the True/False festival in March.
“The NTA community really had no idea other people might feel their story so strongly,” Shaw says. Activist Greer, then-principal Castelaz and one of the film’s key student subjects, Taylor Wallace, attended the premiere and were hailed in the post-screening discussion as heroes of a resistance of their own community’s making.
“My biggest fear,” Shaw says of his movie, “was making a movie that was only about the fight to keep a school open.” He wanted the footage to “sit with these people when it made sense, and get to know the community on screen, and understand where they’re coming from.” The inclusion of scenes such as a fifth grade NTA student known as Yaa, in meetings with then-principal Castelaz, don’t cut to the chase; they unfold gradually, revealing a lesson in “how a fifth grader can develop a good, healthy, mentoring relationship with an educator.”
Recently, Shaw has reteamed with his “America to Me” colleague and friend James, working as cinematographer on a new ESPN “30 for 30″ profile of NBA superstar Bill Walton.
Director Shaw’s next project? He’s currently filming: “One Golden Summer,” about the 2014 Jackie Robinson West Little League Baseball championship and subsequent scandal.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the truth of who was involved, and to what extent,” he says. But “there were kids who bore the brunt of the fault that didn’t deserve to. And there’s a bigger story about the tragedy of youth sports, and how capitalism has in many ways overcome youth sports.” Expect a release in 2023 or 2024.
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It looks to be another 90-minute project. “At least right now it does,” he says, with a laugh. “You never know.”
“Let the Little Light Shine,” Aug. 12-18, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; tickets $13.64 at (312) 846-2085 or siskelfilmcenter.org
The documentary also airs on Dec. 12 on the PBS series “POV.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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