If Frederick Wiseman’s High School works like a time machine, transporting viewers back to their own coming of age experiences in this quintessential American institution, the journey will be bittersweet for alumni of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, where the landmark documentary was shot.
Most alums have never seen the documentary, but they remember the local controversy over how it depicted their alma mater. Threatened with what he describes now as “vague talk” of a lawsuit, Wiseman in 1968 agreed not to screen High School within miles of the city.
More than three decades later, the documentary has achieved classic status among independent films. PBS will present it as such Aug. 28  as a P.O.V. Classic, a new strand developed by Executive Producer Cara Mertes.
Before the airing, Aug. 23, the Northeast High School Alumni Association and WHYY will cosponsor the first local screening of High School at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theatre. A panel of alumni will discuss the film afterwards.
“This is still a hot topic within the Northeast community,” said Marilyn Kleinberg, a ’78 grad and v.p. of the alumni board, who is coordinating the event.
“Those of us who were part of the school felt High School was a real hatchet job,” Kleinberg said. She hasn’t seen the film since she was in college and is interested to see how controversial it will seem to local audiences now.
“In our judgment at the time, it was a totally negative portrayal,” recalled Bill Jones, who was public information officer for the Philadelphia schools at the time.
“They’d gone in with certain notions about High School USA and shot what they wanted to find. It gave the school, which had a long tradition of excellence, a black eye.”
The central theme of High School is the clash of conformity and self-expression — a timeless struggle for teenagers that gains urgency in the documentary as teachers and administrators impose heavy-handed discipline and espouse social mores that now seem regressive. In several scenes, educators react as if they were the last line of defense against the protests and upheaval of the ’60s.
The students push the boundaries on relatively tame issues–being unfairly singled out for discipline, for example, and wearing a short skirt to the prom. Girls in a gym class who demonstrate athletic strength are labeled “Tarzan” and “Super Tarzan,” but those who don’t are “feminine.” A gynecologist lecturer advises boys that teenage promiscuity leads to failure in marriage. The school disciplinarian tells a boy angered by how a teacher treated him that a man must follow orders without question.
Other adults seem more reasonable by today’s standards, like the school official who advises a father to allow his daughter to pursue her goals in life, not his. A girl called in for goofing off isn’t reprimanded, but encouraged to tap her leadership potential and set a better example.
The late ’60s were a “difficult time to be a teenager,” said Steve Weisberg, program director of WLRN in Miami and a Northeast grad from the class of ’68. “What we were being told at school and the reality of the times were clashing in the psyches of kids who were just coming of age.”
“The school was just taking the government line on the [Vietnam] war,” he added.
Weisberg assisted Wiseman during the month that he shot High School. “All I did was carry cables for him and watch him shoot.” Weisberg didn’t see the film until after he finished college.
“He captured what life was like in a high school in the late `60s,” Weisberg commented. Some of the teachers in High School “got off really easy from what we knew them to be. Some of them he caught dead on.”
Back in 1968, school officials had differing reactions to the film, said Jones, who recalled screening a rough cut with then Superintendent Mark Shed and others. “We felt it was very carefully crafted to show that high school education was a disaster, which we disagreed with — especially at Northeast.”
Shed was an Ivy League-educated superintendent who set out to “shake the education tree,” and he wasn’t averse to discussing the problems of urban schools. But Richardson Dilworth, a prominent attorney and head of the school board, was “incensed by the film,” Jones recalled. A few days prior to a public screening, Dilworth threatened to file a lawsuit against the film. “Negotiations produced a settlement in which the film could be shown nationally, but not in Philadelphia.”
Wiseman today downplays the legal threats as “vague talk of no one particular individual,” but he nevertheless didn’t want to fight city leaders.
“This was soon after the Titcut Follies case, and I didn’t want another lawsuit on my hands,” Wiseman explained. His 1967 film on the Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane was banned in Massachusetts until 1991.
The standard reaction he’s gotten to High School since filming it three decades ago is that it evokes the high school experience of viewers no matter when they graduated.
“We hope that people will look at it, and learn from it, and think about the issues that it brought up 30 years ago, and if they have meaning today,” said Nessa Foreman, spokeswoman for WHYY.