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Docurama presents
The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005)

"You've got to be the person you want the kids to be."
- Rafe Esquith, who teaches fifth grade

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: May 05, 2006

Stars: Rafe Esquith
Other Stars: Ian McKellen, Michael York
Director: Mel Stuart

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:53m:00s
Release Date: February 28, 2006
UPC: 767685976234
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+B-B- C-

DVD Review

We can promise to leave no child behind, we can administer batteries of tests and hold the relevant authorities accountable for their results, but on some level we all understand that our schools are only as good as the teachers in them. And this documentary is an admiring portrait of the sort of teacher we'd want for our kids, and, really, for all kids—Rafe Esquith teaches fifth grade at Hobart Elementary, in Los Angeles, and what he does with the 10-year-olds in his class is close to miraculous. He's a model of inspiration, enthusiasm and compassion—it's easy to swoon over what he does with his class, and director Mel Stuart clearly does, so occasionally the movie almost feels like a brochure. But if anybody deserves some good pub, it's a hard-working, effective, inspiring fifth-grade teacher.

The students in Rafe's class are either Latino or Asian, and he reports that none are native English speakers; the title of the documentary undersells what he does, because an afterschool production of Hamlet is only the most public event of the academic year. He's got these children reading Of Mice and Men and weeping over passages from Huckleberry Finn, and every kid in the class can name all six states that border Idaho. (Can you? If so, you're one up on me. Maybe I could buy a vowel?) He makes sure that they get some candy at Halloween, and Barnes and Noble gift certificates at Christmas, the only present that many of them, from very poor families, will receive; the class is even its own 501(c)3, so charitable contributions fund trips to Washington, D.C., and to other spots of historical and cultural interest. In the best sense, without xenophobia or jingoism, Rafe is making his students into good American citizens.

There's talk of grumbling from other teachers in the school, none of whom, unsurprisingly, air their grievances for the camera; and of course not all of the fifth graders buy in to the program, but enough do to keep the malcontents quiet. And the fact that these little kids can read and understand Shakespeare, let alone perform it, is pretty spectacular—the class is celebrated enough now that part of the curriculum are annual visits from the likes of Michael York and Ian McKellen, Shakespearean actors greeted as rock stars. The peril faced in the community by these children isn't sugar-coated, either—in one scene, as the cameras roll, the school is in lockdown because of a nearby shooting, and the students are sanguine about it, for they've been down this road before. Plenty of tears are shed on the last day of class, but we get a sense—and the kids do, too—that they'll always have great memories of fifth grade, and that they're particularly well prepared for the challenges that they'll be asked to meet in middle school, and beyond. All in a day's work for an extraordinarily dedicated teacher.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Kind of grainy throughout, and the contrast level is high as well.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Some buzz now and again, but no dialogue is obscured.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paradise Lost, Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Touch the Sound
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: An interview (14m:41s) with director Mel Stuart goes over the details of the production—how he heard about Rafe's class, how the children reacted to the presence of a camera crew, and so on. There's also a brief biography of Stuart.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

An affectionate portrait of an extraordinarily effective elementary school teacher, preparing his students not just for the test, but for the challenges they'll face through the years.


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