“Monsieur Lazhar” (2012): A Teacher Movie Without the White Savior or White Gaze (and with much more)

So many “teacher films” focus on the seemingly unprecedented abilities of White teachers to successfully reach and transform those who are apparently the most unreachable students in the worst neighborhoods. These students are typically poor and non-White, as well. Such films include Music of the Heart (1999), Half Nelson (2006), and Freedom Writers (2007)–to just name a few.

“Teacher films” are frequently ruined by their use of such tropes, tropes that are nonexistent outside of fictions. White teachers are not, of course, uniquely talented, and non-White students are not uniquely in need of “saving.” Such films serve to perpetuate the White Status quo and to sort of fetishize everything counter to the White Status quo. At the same time, they minimize the real role of Privilge and Oppression.  

I just finished watching Philippe Falardeau’s Canadian Monsieur Lazhar (2012). This is clearly not a Hollywood production!! 

This is a “teacher film,” but the new teacher (necessary because the previous teacher committed suicide in her classroom), Bashir Lazhar, is not a Savior and is not even White. In numerous ways, he’s the one who needs saving(, too). The students don’t and can’t save him. And he can’t save them (and doesn’t even “try”). The students are also not created simply as objects for viewers and their gaze to exploit. And yet, the students and thier teacher build strong, successful relationships. 

The story in Monsieur Lazhar is a beautiful one, “simple” in good ways compared to Hollywood (and with great attention given to the camera and the mise-en-scène), but it is ultimately one where isolation and sadness are big themes. It also addresses the nightmare of contemporary bureaucracies and the life and death power they hold! 

I highly recommend this award-winning film. It’s in French (with English subtitles)! You can watch the trailer here.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. Sounds important considering the recent news report on PBS News Hour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/failure-cycle-causing-shortage-black-male-teachers/ ) that even with an African-American male teacher, African-American male Students still do not do that well in schools. Chris Emdin used hip-hop to describe the problem. His conclusion is that if you change the teacher but don’t change the system, all you create are thousands of black male teachers and their students who quit. the comments below the piece are very revealing, and may represent a lot of Americans who aren’t paying any attention at all to the problems with K-12 education.

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  2. Thank you Dr. Pegoda. Well, all types of media want a happy ending. When it comes to failing schools, no medium wants to end on the sour note of reality. It takes a LOT more than “inspiration” to succeed at anything. What happened to the real Jaime Escalante (Edward J. Olmos, ‘Stand and Deliver’) and Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman, ‘Lean on Me’) are cases in point. No one would buy the movie or pay for its distribution if it showed the reality of schools in poverty areas or how innovative teachers get drummed out of the system. However, sad or mixed endings are allowed if the performances are extremely commanding (Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’,Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore in ‘Ordinary People’). But it takes extraordinary script writers and producers for that to be possible.

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