An Experiment In Excellence

Meet Miss Brown, a Pittsburgh public school teacher who, along with a young Italian boy named Dominick, found herself the subject of an NBC news documentary which aired in 1963. The film, "An Experiment In Excellence", was directed by my father Frank De Felitta and it's my pleasure to share it with you below (I've posted the first half--the entire thing will be up over the next few days).

Like most of my fathers other NBC documentaries, the film is both a stirring emotional journey as well as a time capsule of the era in which it was made. The films were made between 1962-1968 and thus collectively serve as a record of a very specific era
in American history. Whether covering the generation's artists ("The American Image"), the life of a young intern ("Emergency Ward") or the struggles of the south during the civil rights era ("Mississippi: A Self Portrait"), the sense of the times is alive and beautifully rendered in all of them.

In this film you get a look at the public school system of a typical American city in the mid-sixties. The films premise is that America has juiced up its educational efforts in a bid to compete with the Russians (Sputnik is referenced in the films opening seconds). In spite of all the new high tech advances that have been made (which appears to be limited to flashcards), the simple excellence of a devoted teacher has been forgotten. Miss Brown is retiring this year. And the film chronicles her devotion to spending extra time and effort teaching one nine year old with learning problems, Dominik.

You may find Miss Brown charmless and her teaching methods a tad insensitive (Dominick is forced to demonstrate his lack of reading ability to the class. Miss Brown then compounds this cruelty by making the smart kid--a little jerk named Kirk--read the sentence properly). Nonetheless, she is a good old-fashioned teacher with a real devotion to advancing this boy's opportunities in his new country (his family is from Italy and speaks little or no English at home. This is explained as the reason for Dominicks slowness though to my eyes there's a touch of Asperger's going on as well).

It's a lovely film about a forgotten style of "learning" and the simple dignity of Miss Brown and the sadness in the eyes of her
nine year old student is unutterably moving. In the words of Orson Welles (describing "Make Way For Tomorrow"): "it could make a stone cry."

 Subscribe in a reader