Finding the Gold Within
Through a mentoring program that includes empathy, drumming, and myths, young African American men identify and refine the raw materials of their humanity and potential.
As a columnist, I receive screeners for many documentaries, but I only write about those that are excellent cinematically and reach me emotionally. Finding the Gold Within is one of the best films I've ever seen about the challenges facing African American males in our society, one that I strongly recommend to teachers -- and to anyone who appreciates excellent documentaries.
Finding the Gold Within is characterized by superior direction and editing by Karina Epperlein, and superb cinematography by Karina, Andy Black, and Vicente Franco. Karina has created a polished film that is beautiful to watch and engages the viewer with the intimacy established between the filmmaker and her six main subjects. If you were creating a fictional film, you couldn't come up with better lead characters or actors.
Dr. Kwame Scruggs founded Alchemy, Inc., a program providing school mentoring to over 1500 elementary, middle, and high school-aged urban youth in the Akron and Cleveland areas since 2003. His conception integrates Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious, Joseph Campbell's work on rites of passage and heroes, and the related work of Michael Meade, a mythologist and storyteller, who at one point joins the group to share stories about the journeys of heroes. Adding African drumming provides a perfect emotional unifier. All of these are integrated in a group process that is powerfully effective. Jerry Kwame Williams, the co-facilitator, is also a gifted storyteller and the ongoing interaction between the co-facilitators and the young men is remarkable.
As Michael Meade says off camera at the beginning of the film, Alchemy is about entering the darkness to find the hidden gold. And this program's essential goal is to help these young men, some from troubled backgrounds and all daily facing racial biases about black males, get in touch with the gold within them, their inner strengths, and, in their own ways, become heroes.
The Power of Myths
Myths are used as a wellspring for these young men as they struggle with the realities of their lives. Drumming helps channel their energy and anger. The guidance of the two leaders helps create an environment that leads to increasing openness. The result is a form of alchemy, turning blackness into gold.
As one of the leaders says off camera, "Myths are not just for putting children to sleep, but for waking adults up" -- a message repeated throughout the film in different ways. And as Kwame Williams says, stories heal, and "wounded people will continue to wound others until they are healed."
The goal is to help these young men get in touch with their inner strengths so that they can become heroes. In their daily environments, they have to deal regularly with explicit and implicit racism. One young man working in a grocery store struggled to mediate his reaction and find his gold within while his manager joked that it's funny to have a black guy handling bananas. Hearing the "n-word" is a regular occurrence on their college campuses, as are racist jokes. We are reminded throughout the film of the ongoing racism in our culture that these young men struggle to overcome.
Kwame Williams says, "Take the pain and have it become a motivator!" and "Allow the fire to burn within you."
The voices of these young men capture and hold us, as they will hold your students. Here are just a few of the memorable statements suggesting the heart of this film.
Darius captures the centrality of the drumming in the group process and its individual impact on the young men: "I'm facing all this energy from white males. I don't understand why. So I just have to prepare myself and keep it in my mind what to do in those situations." He tells how Alchemy has given him the outlet for anger in his drumming, opened up his mind, and influenced his slam poetry. "Just to have something to bang my hands against repeatedly, it really gets it out and to have a sound that goes with it. You have this rhythm and it just plays out. You begin to make a rhythm to how you're feeling, and it feels great. I really love it with a passion. I want to learn how to drum better."
When he shares his poetry with his adoring grandmother, she embraces him and says, "I'm so proud of you. . . You learned how to fly. . . You're going to be a heck of a man someday."
Brandyn, the most articulate of the main subjects, often speaks with great perceptiveness. Here are three of his many eloquent, revealing comments.
"Music is the beautiful woman in the myth for me. . . Music is the one thing that, no matter where I go or no matter what I do, it won't leave me. That's something, just like thinking in my mind, that no one can take away from me."
"I'm finding the raw material within myself, and I'm refining it and hopefully turning it into something beautiful that I can share with everybody else. . . To me, that's finding the gold within. That's my own personal process of alchemy."
"The perception of the typical black urban man is kind of like the world's worst fear. The world knows that we got it inside of us, but we choose to do the wrong thing, and you know the world really doesn't understand why we're doing the wrong thing, just because they don't know the spots we've been in. And at the same time, we're their biggest fear, because if we get our s**t together, we make it rain down."
Oh, by the way, 26 of 28 in this program's first core group went on to college.
As Brandyn tells a group of entering sixth grade boys, "You guys can become heroes." Each of these remarkable young men and their leaders is a hero.
Finding Educational Gold
This film has almost unlimited teaching potential for social studies and English classrooms.
Teachers might use it to examine the art of documentary filmmaking. How did the director establish the exceptional intimacy with the main subjects? What is the purpose in using the many close-ups? Karina purposely films the young men in nature settings and not in the typical city settings most often used in films about African American teens. What is her purpose in doing this?
Alchemy, Inc.'s approach to changing these lives is a subject in itself. Your students could look at the connection between Jung, Campbell, and Meade, storytelling, journaling, and drumming as a process. A brief introduction to each of these important thinkers should be a first step in this exploration. Could this process also be used with other at-risk kids who aren't African American? Could some parts of that process be used here, in our class and school?
Finally, the subject of African American males in our culture is obviously of critical importance. Teachers might consider a unit on the topic that would include The Pact, a book by and about three young African American men on a collaborative journey to become doctors. The film Boyz N The Hood is also a possible supplementary film to use.
Finding the Gold Within is available free to teachers for a limited time if they write directly to the director, Karina Epperlein, and agree to share with her how they've used the film.
This film, the program, and these young men are a gift for educators. Take advantage of that gift.