This week I was reminded of why Boy At The Window was necessary for me to write, and for others to read. I watched, probably for about the fifteenth or sixteenth time, Finding Forrester. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a coming-of-age movie about finding your own path, even in the midst of racial stereotypes and arrogant affluence, the blending of multiple worlds. With Rob Brown and Sean Connery as the lead actors, it actually is one of the better movies of this decade. But if you’re asking me, it’s among my top five movies since 2000.
What takes Finding Forrester from the vaguely plausible to the real in my book starts with Rob Brown. He played a character in Jamal Wallace that had to have so much more depth to him than most people would think possible. An incredibly smart and withdrawn teenager who hides all of those things when he’s with his friends or in public school somewhere in the Bronx, presumably in or near the South Bronx. A well-developed basketball player who spends at least an equal amount of time keeping a journal of his writings, reading Coleridge and Tolstoy and numerous other literary giants. All of this, and his face for most of the movie is as blank as a clean chalkboard at the beginning of a new school year.
That face. That’s the first thing that I responded to when watching Finding Forrester for the first time in February ’01. It reminded me of my face when I was in high school, especially my last two years at MVHS. I’ve discussed it before. Brown’s character might’ve concealed intelligence and an intellectualism that most academicians would envy with his face. It may have hidden the emotional scars of a father who abandoned him and his family. It certainly kept under wraps the hardships that the character lived with every day at home and in a New York City public school. But that where the similarities end. My face also hid my contempt for the politics — racial, socioeconomic, academic and athletic — that I saw play out every day for the six years I was in Humanities and the four years I was in MVHS. My late teacher and mentor Harold Meltzer said as much to me one day about how he could see the “laughter in my eyes” about all the hypocrisy that was MVHS for me in eleventh and twelve grade.
That wasn’t my only takeaway from Finding Forrester. Sean Connery — who has a tendency to be a bit over the top, and has done more than his share of God-awful movies — really does a great job playing the reclusive writer William Forrester. Having written a bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about life and death and loss and suffering didn’t seem to help Connery’s character, who had spent the better part of five decades scared to experience life again. His life, his world, had gone cold after his brother and parents died within months of each other in the 1950s. His agoraphobia had kept him from recovering from this grand-scale tragedy until Brown’s character shows up in his life.
For most people, the likelihood that a depressed and hermetic White guy would become friends with a sixteen-year-old Black male who guarded his every facial expression and kept his writing and other non-athletic talents a state secret borders on the impossible. Yet I know all too well how the impossible become real. Whether the person’s name is Meltzer, or Lazarus, or Lacey, or any number of unlikely friendships I’ve had over the past quarter century, I’ve learned that age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are only barriers if we make them such. The most important component of any friendship, or any mentoring relationship, is an intellectual bond that allows folks in the friendship to learn lessons from each other. Without this, all friendships are superficial.
Just as important as the lesson of friendships and difference is the lesson of finding one’s own path. Finding Forrester from the very beginning isn’t a movie about how an elderly White guy helps out a poor and worthless African American boy. Nor is it simply about a Black kid shunning his world for a White one. It’s about finding balance between two worlds that rarely meet outside of sports, entertainment and crime. After Brown’s character is “outed” by high test scores, he’s accepted by one of NYC’s private academies for the destined-to-go-to-an-Ivy-League crowd. Of course, the fact that he’s an excellent basketball player helps him as well. The character Jamal Wallace finds himself very quickly negotiating multiple worlds, all of which he’s in, but not necessarily of.
Obviously I didn’t go to a prep school that I could barely afford to send Noah to now. But being in Humanities classes full of folks from middle class and affluent families within a working-class, working poor and welfare poor school district, and coming home to 616 — the land of ignorance, poverty, abuse and younger siblings — would cause most people’s heads to spin. I could’ve, with some work, used basketball as a vehicle to traverse these worlds, I guess. That wasn’t my way. I became an academic achiever and knew I could write well — but didn’t quite see myself as a writer — long before I realized I had the height and athletic skills necessary to knock down a seventeen-foot jumper. As my so-called MVHS counselor Sylvia Fasulo said about me, “There goes Donald, always daring to be different,” a sarcastic refrain she used more than once.
Finding William Forrester did help Brown’s character find his own way in life. As a writer. As a person with integrity and intelligence. As a whole human being. Still, the character Jamal Wallace possessed all of these traits and used them long before meeting Forrester at the age of sixteen. Brown’s character and his friendship with Forrester gave him access to the career choice he wanted, confidence in the abilities he possessed, and a sense that he had more control over his life than he had dared imagine before. It took me a bit longer to begin to find myself, to make my own way and follow my own path. It’s hard to break away from a past of pain and betrayal with little to guide you. But I did. I had to. And I used every experience and every lesson I could to do so. It helps that a few others were there along the way to help, and for me to help them as well.