Filmmakers share how ‘Accepted’ exposed the realities of a 21st century student and the American education system
June 30, 2021
“In English,” Michael Landry shouted during the morning meeting at T.M. Landry.
“I love you,” all the students surrounding him responded.
“In Mandarin,” he shouted.
“Wǒ ài nǐ,” they responded.
“ich liebe dich.”
“Remember, you control your own destiny,” Landry said. “So go get it!”
The moment of support that resounded the walls of the unconventional school T.M. Landry marks the introduction of the Accepted documentary. The school; run and founded by Michael “Mike” Landry and his wife, Tracey Landry, initially made headlines for having exceptional, out-of-the-box education that landed many of its students in Ivy League universities. As a school that mainly supported Black students from low-income families, it offered a beacon of hope for those pushed into the margins.
However, as the documentary progresses, those headlines turn sour, deep with lost hope.
Filmmakers and producers Dan Chen, Jesse Einstein, and Jason Y. Lee followed students of T.M. Landry in the middle of it all when The New York Times published an exposé in 2018 on the school’s controversial practices used to get students into top schools. The documentary portrays students attempting to dig up any bit of optimism in a flawed education system that extends past the doors of the school they once called home. Through the documentary, we see how the school’s situation only exacerbated a problem that was already present in American education.
Lee remembers walking into the school for the first time and witnessing the morning meeting, amazed by how dedicated the kids were to their education.
"What made that really powerful was all of these young people kind of committing to school and this idea that, 'I am here to learn, to grow, to push myself to be better,'" he said.
"And I think that was such a beautiful thing."
The movie, which screened at Tribeca in June, shows how short-lived that ambition can be amid scandal. To narrow in on the paths students took, the documentary team had to decide on a handful of students that best represented their experiences. Chen, who is also the director of the documentary, said that with advice from editor and co-producer Joshua Altman, they decided to narrow down from about eight students to a smaller number that would allow them to go deeper into each story.
“I think the final four represent four very different personalities who go on four unique journeys that happen to contrast and complement in a way that, as far as story structure goes, I think was the strongest combination of people that we could have found,” Chen said.
The team stayed at an Airbnb near the school during the filming process. At the beginning of the process, they outlined everything down to three paragraphs describing what the documentary would be about. Every time they went out to film, they returned to the Airbnb with new information, additional paragraphs, and a growing stack of notecards with varying story arcs.
"We essentially made a sizzle reel and a pitch deck from that first week's worth of materials," Chen said.
"And then I think every subsequent trip we would have a new 10 paragraph-long summary of what this entire project could look like."
After the school came under fire for their practices, their initial thoughts of how the documentary would go were completely subverted. However, Einstein said that even as things altered, they kept the narrative cohesive by upholding the themes.
"As long as you're staying focused on themes that you were looking to explore and the truth of what [the students are] going through, it doesn't matter how big the change is, as long as you're listening to them,” he said.
The weight of the students’ stories depicted what it is like to be a teenager striving to achieve higher education today. On top of T.M. Landry’s misconducts, students were trying to get into the schools of their dreams, take care of their families, or decide what they want their futures to look like. For Einstein, he could see how each student felt isolated, yet was going through similar emotions other students were experiencing.
"These kids really had to deal with some difficult things that no one should have to deal with, honestly," he said.
"There were these moments of clarity when we were filming, where they were really honest with the camera about their mental health and the weight that they've felt."
Lee shared that the students’ vulnerable moments and trust in the documentary team resulted in honest scenes that were a privilege for them to hear and share through the documentary. It was an emotional journey for the kids that they offered to be shared through Accepted.
Writing and crafting the narratives of the students did not end after filming. As with any documentary, writing extended into editing. Einstein said editors Altman, Arielle Zakowski, and Jean Rheem all had their share of helping write the story.
Accepted shares the daunting inequalities in the American education system, and the realities of those who are in it 一 students working toward a bright future.
The last moments depict students’ ambitions the best. The camera goes from the hands of the filmmakers to the hands of a student, music playing, wind blowing through the crack in the car window, driving forward.
"This movie is about these students talking about their own stories, and not anyone from a media organization, including us, telling it for them," Chen said.
Written by: Steven VargasSteven Vargas is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles whose work focuses on arts, entertainment and activism. He is a current grad student at USC Annenberg pursuing an MA in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) and previously graduated from USC with a BA in Theatre and Journalism with a minor in Dance. He is a current member of the Equity Board, a new initiative at Annenberg Media dedicated to diversifying sourcing and promoting inclusive coverage across the publication. His short doc, “Dancing at Home,” earned first place in the LA Press Club’s “Life in the Time of the Coronavirus Contest" in May 2020. More recently, he co-directed "Two Paths: One Direction," an award-winning short documentary produced with students from the USC and Prairie View A&M University about their experiences of 2020. He produced work for ET Live, TheWrap, Dance Magazine, BuzzFeed News, and more. His work can be found here: https://www.vargassteven.com/