Stage & Screen

The Uneven Playing Field

Kartemquin’s latest documentary illustrates the harsh realities that thwart CPS students’ college dreams

Courtesy of Kartemquin

I want to be known for who I am, not who I want to be,” says Elizabeth, organizing the storage of her parents’ small clothing shop in Brighton Park. Elizabeth is one of many second-generation Hispanic youths who aspire to improve their current situation by getting a college degree. Undeterred by financial obstacles, Elizabeth believes in what her soccer coach has told her: “You are the leader.”

This is the beginning of In the Game, a Kartemquin Films production directed by the Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker Maria Finitzo. Over the span of five years, the film follows three students at Kelly High School in their journey from high school soccer matches to the real world. However, the playing fields are uneven in both games. The fact that Kelly does not have its own soccer field poignantly mirrors the girls’ future: college is a playing field exclusive to those who can pay for it. For the girls, it is no longer a matter of winning the game, but instead simply staying in it, whether that means having three jobs at the same time, or taking a gap year in order to pay for a year of tuition at a community college through work.

Finitzo highlights this tension between illusory hope and stern reality through the parallel storytelling of different characters. Maria, the captain, wins her first architecture design competition and decides to pursue architecture in college, but former captain Elizabeth has already compromised to reality, dropping out of college after a sudden fire destroys her family’s house. Elizabeth’s circumstances foretell those of Maria, who is eventually forced to suspend her studies and get married. “There are so many walls in between. I feel like I have no way to climb that wall,” Maria says, after a lawyer tells her that it is almost impossible for her to rise above her financial difficulties.

Even if the possibility exists, its fulfillment demands total devotion and immeasurable sacrifice. The girls, like many other children from immigrant families, bear a family obligation to help out the household in a variety of ways, but achieving their college dream might entail severing family ties, as In the Game suggests with Alicia’s story. While Elizabeth has her parents’ steady support, and Maria settles down with a new family of her own, Alicia is left alone, paying for her tuition on her own.

Alejandro Espinoza, who attended a public screening of In the Game a couple weeks ago at Archer Heights Library, teaches at Curie Metropolitan High School in Archer Heights, right next to Brighton Park. He finds it disturbing that high school often gives these underprivileged students false hope.

“They only told the kids, you are in control of your life and you can deal with your own cards,” Espinoza said after the screening. “One of the responsibilities for us, as educators and as members of the community, is not to preach these hopey hopes—what those students really need is critical hope. We need to teach them to recognize the give-and-take in achieving this college dream.”

As the audience, we see the young players grow on the soccer field and in the classroom. And initially, the film caters to our assumption that the girls will be given the opportunities they deserve; against our expectations, though, it turns out to be a story of those beaten by the system. In doing so, the documentary candidly shatters the popular notion of the American Dream and offers a trenchant criticism of the inequality deeply rooted in our social system. Effort does not determine your outcome in the game of life—race, gender, and socioeconomic background do. This truth is not unfamiliar to the girls. “Sometimes in life, you are still going to fail even when you make the effort,” says Stan, their soccer coach, after the girls are defeated by Whitney Young Magnet High School, a well-funded school renowned for its soccer program.

The soccer game between Kelly and Whitney Young is a microscope the film uses to expose greater issues of racism and funding inequity. At the end, the film hits hard with a news report that, already under-resourced, Kelly High School nevertheless suffered the most funding cuts in the 2015 CPS budget crisis. As a result, the school is unable to provide toilet paper, chalk, markers, and other basic school supplies for its students and faculty, tough luck for a student body drawn primarily from undocumented Latino families who cannot vote. Here, the film implicitly criticizes the interest-driven politics of the city. “Our community has been hit harder than other communities,” a Brighton Park Neighborhood Council member says in the film. “I don’t understand how you couldn’t look at it through a racial justice lens.”

Kelly High School is by no means the only neighborhood school in this kind of economic plight. Curie High School, just ten minutes away from Kelly, shares a similar student body and similar challenges. “All the public high schools are fighting against a shrinking pot of money,” Espinoza said, speaking to his own experience at Curie. “It is bizarre to see that we have external funders coming in to help us fix this, fix that. It makes you wonder how public the schools are when they receive so little public funding from the city.”

Nevertheless, what lies at the heart of the film is an earnest celebration of the resilience of three girls in the face of adversity, and the value of being part of a team. Despite the seeming cliché, the film successfully demonstrates its power through an unsentimental narrative that depicts how in a team, one becomes stronger in overcoming setbacks. Individual effort is necessary, yet attention and support from the community are indispensable. Given the social awareness it creates, In the Game earned its place as a selection this year for One Book, One Chicago, a Chicago Public Library program aiming to foster understanding and engagement in the community. Just like what Stan always told the girls at soccer games, the film brings forth a powerful message: we need a team—the concerted effort of every member of the community to ensure the game is played fairly.

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