By Marc S. Sanders
One of the most inspiring classroom setting films is Stand And Deliver directed by Ramon Menéndez and written by him with producer Tom Musca. This pair took great pains to protect the integrity of their script.
The film tells the story of math teacher Jaime Escalante’s (Edward James Olmos) uncompromising drive to bring 18 students at Garfield High School to passing the state’s AP Calculus exam. These students come from working class Hispanic families who hardly offer their own children any bright future beyond fixing cars, waitressing in the family restaurant or remaining as a gang member in a life of crime. Their parents laugh and shake their heads at their dreams of becoming doctors or engineers. Their parents never had a teacher like Jaime Escalante.
Escalante motivates them to find a ticket out, and become the first members of their families to graduate high school and go to college. The first two acts of the film focus on Escalante’s drive and brief encounters with some members of his classroom. He shows how he’s not intimidated by gang member Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips) and how he convinces a restauranteur to allow his daughter to return to class. Another student is overcome with stress. Escalante listens but doesn’t allow the student to give up. I like these scenes a lot and my descriptions do not give these moments enough credit.
The film does not rely on classroom speechifying or inspiring rock music to cut in with sequences of kids reading books. Instead, it drives home the fact that Jaime Escalante never loses sight of the nowhere potential these students live with. The students learn to respect the one man who never underestimates them, regarding him as “Kemosabe.” He never allows them to lose their “ganas;” a desire for something better.
Even after they pass the exam, the students’ own environment will not allow them to celebrate their success. It’s too hard to accept the result. It’s easier to accuse them of cheating as it’s presumed that this sect of Hispanic/Mexican people could never have accomplished what their scores indicate. No other explanation could merit what’s occurred. Escalante is angered by this racism, but his confidence in his students pushes them to retake the exam. Blatant racism will not prevent a future without poverty.
The students consist of mostly unknown actors. Following this film from 1988, I’d catch one of them guest starring on a TV show here or there. Collectively speaking though, they really come through by convincingly displaying their lower class lives. It’s easy to see a lack of potential for these kids early on in the film. It’s also comfortably easy to see how Escalante takes command of their lives with a sense of unity and motivation. No one ever told these kids they could solve some of the hardest mathematical equations ever conceived. No one ever told these kids they could amount to something. It took someone from their own environment to help them defy a stereotype and demonstrate that intelligence is a gift that any human being is blessed with. They just have to have the “ganas.”
Edward James Olmos was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I’d say it was one of the most under the radar performances to ever be considered frankly. Stand And Deliver was made on a small budget. It’s easy to see that. Still, that is also what is so special about the film. This film stood on its performances and the genuine inspiring story it’s based on. It had all the ingredients it needed to be a winning film. This film eventually reached the exclusive annals of the prestigious National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Stand And Deliver will tell you to never surrender.