Some people get nervous about the use of the word “Negro,” so it’s no surprise that North Philadelphia native André Robert Lee’s latest documentary film, “The Prep School Negro,” has raised a few eyebrows.
But, the 43-year-old screenwriter and director recently told NewsWorks that he’s a lot less concerned about people’s opinions of his work and a lot more concerned with finally being able to tell his story and helping others to tell theirs.
“I know the title makes people nervous, but that’s OK because you know what the film is about right away. It draws you in right away,” Lee said.
“The whole reason I’ve been trying to tell a story is because I went through a period when I didn’t feel comfortable expressing myself,” he continued. “This is the title that I want and I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but this is my truth and I need to tell it.”
From slums to GFS
In the film, Lee revisits his childhood experience growing up in the slums of North Philadelphia nearly 30 years ago.
Thanks to a scholarship, Lee was one of few students of color selected to attend Germantown Friends School, which is located at Germantown Ave. and Coulter St. in Northwest Philadelphia.
According to Lee, having the opportunity to attend one of the most elite prep schools in the country came with social and psychological repercussions.
Many effects, Lee believes, were tied to his having to transition from a poverty-stricken neighborhood to an upper-class institution on a daily basis. He said that experience was a shock to his system, akin to jumping in ice water.
The film also follows the journeys of current prep-school students of color to highlight issues of diversity, identity and privilege.
Those issues which affected Lee’s experience decades ago and still impact independent-school students of color today.
Lee said he hopes the film will help liberate anyone who watches it — but especially current prep-school students of color — to be confident in their identities.
“I hope when people watch the movie, they feel stronger in the face of the chaos that is our world,” he said. “When you’re hit with hurtful words, or discrimination, or exclusion, I hope the movie shows them how to be strong in the face of that and to stand up for themselves.”
Friday afternoon screening
At 1:30 p.m. Friday, “The Prep School Negro” will be shown during the 17th annual symposium on transforming inner-city education the Gesu School (1700 W. Thompson St., just off Ridge)
Bryan Carter, Gesu’s president and CEO, said he chose to feature Lee’s film after attending a screening because many students at his school — the student body is 99-percent African American — share Lee’s experience.
“Andre’s story is similar to those of many of our children: Growing up in deep poverty and then graduating to attend a top high school … where they are one of three black students in an English class,” he said. “How do we at Gesu School, and those at schools like Gesu School, prepare our children for that reality?
“The goal of our annual symposium on inner-city education is to present a relevant, thought-provoking topic that educators, parents and those interested in inner-city education can discuss and share ideas/best practices.”
A panel discussion with Lee and several school administrators, education leaders and independent-school graduates will follow Friday’s screening.