SAN FRANCISCO–Taking as its unlikely but irresistible subject a 1989 visit of 11 black Brooklyn high school students to an Israeli kibbutz, the documentary “Black to the Promised Land” is a terrific feature bow for director Madeleine Ali.
With its upbeat approach, humorous cross-cultural slant and ultimately touching commentary on frustrations in the U.S. black community, “Promised Land” deserves a wide audience and could turn a tidy theatrical profit if properly marketed. It should certainly find an eager viewers via TV sale.
The six boys and five girls, ages 15-18, are students at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Street Academy–an alternative school for those with a history of trouble in regular public schools–which is located in one of Brooklyn’s most troubled neighborhoods. But these kids impress audience right off with their ingratiating candor and humor.
Catalyst for the trip is teacher Stewart Bailer, who managed to put funds together for the group’s travel and 10-week stay in a 1,500-acre kibbutz near the northern Syria and Lebanon borders.
Focus stays on the kids, from their pre-journey excitement (and amusingly sketched attendant local media blitz) onward.
Stereotypical expectations abound on both sides–the teens anticipating some sort of pious/close-minded desertwasteland, the kibbutz dwellers (as one boy says) fearing that “stealing, selling drugs (is) their everyday life.”
Expected to conform to the kibbutz’s all-for-one work ethic, U.S. kids initially chafe at days that start at 6 a.m., with long hours of agricultural or assembly-line toil.
“I feel like Sissy Spacek in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ ” sighs one girl. They’re homesick, restless and complain of being under the thumb of “too many bosses.”
But by the end, a wonderful mutual embracing has taken place. The teens have come to enjoy their work and the value placed on it; the kibbutz has wholeheartedly accepted them into its extended family. “I could live here the rest of my life. It’s like there’s no bosses,” says the same boy who’d complained earlier.
The postscript realities back in Brooklyn are sad: one of the kids gets a street beating within days of his return; most long to return to the now seemingly idyllic kibbutz, but there’s no money for that, or even for college hopes.
Beyond the odd visible mike or other glitch, tech values are fine, especially the zippy editing. Branford Marsalis’ jazz-combo score (plus hip-hop tunes for the U.S. framing segments) keeps the mood on the upswing. Explicit discussion of Israeli-Arab relations, and generally perceived anti-black and -semitic sentiments on each side, is omitted here. That’s wholly appropriate. The message is that given half a chance, anyone, especially young people, can overcome prejudices.