Jail or Yale
Reviewed By: Avraham Azrieli
Avraham Azrieli is a novelist. His latest novels, Deborah Rising and Deborah Calling (HarperCollins 2016, 2018) explore the story of the first woman to lead a nation in human history. www.azrieibooks.com

Prolific author/director/producer Christopher M Spence, whose film Silence the Violence and books SnowBall and Ice Cold have been reviewed by us with high praise (and whose other works include Making Waves, Teammates, SkinGames, No J, and Football’s Pioneering Duo) has created another superb documentary: Jail or Yale: Young, Black and Out of Options? This time, Spence explores the most crucial—and devastating—social crisis of present-day America: The structural racism in the U.S. educational system and its ruinous impact on countless black males for the rest of their lives. (A book of the same title is due out soon, as well.)

To concretize for viewers the mighty set of obstacles facing a large segment of American society, Jail or Yale brings alive the voices (and strong feelings) of educators and students alike with unsettling-yet-unblemished honesty.

Spence begins with a central observation: “In the United States, Canada and the UK, we have deeply imbedded stereotypes that connect racial identity to academic ability, and children become aware of these stereotypes as they grow up in the schools. [There is a] strong assumptions that if you’re white, you’ll do better in school than if you’re black or brown.” Add to this tragic baseline of pervasive low academic expectations a series of coalescing oppressive factors, including chronic poverty, persistent police profiling, breakdown in the community and families, and the result is a set of heartbreaking statistics showing how Black students are funneled through the infamous School-to-Prison Pipeline:

  • Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than whites.
  • 70% of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino.
  • 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are black.
  • Black and Latino students are half as likely as whites to graduate high school.
  • 68% of men in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma.
  • People of color make up 67% of the prison population even though they are only 37% of the U.S. population.

Jail of Yale excels in dramatizing the lives of effected youth through interview that are nothing short of mesmerizing. Spence uses images and clips, interspersed with those young men’s wise words, to deliver a memorable and thought-provoking film. The film makes it clear that, to begin addressing this American tragedy, we must realize that the root of the problem (catastrophe might be a better word) is not about an achievement gap, but AN OPPORTUNITY GAP.

What especially distinguishes this documentary is the combination of clear-eyed examination of a seemingly hopeless human reality and an optimistic laying of analytical foundations for a new educational and social structure infused with wisdom, positive reinforcement, nurturing of individual talents, and faith in the abilities of all students, disregarding their skin color.

In summary, with an absorbing, dramatic and haunting combination of words and images, Jail or Yale: Young, Black and Out of Options? delivers a captivating picture of systemic failure, yet draws a brilliant blueprint for a comprehensive turnaround of our educational system, aiming to shatter forever the racist and amoral School-to-Prison Pipeline. Highly recommended!