TThe viral videos all had the same format: a black student sitting at a nondescript table, nervously hovering over a laptop, surrounded by a phalanx of mostly black students, phone cameras ready to capture the moment. When students from TM Landry, a non-traditional private high school in rural Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, see admission emails — to Harvard, Dartmouth, Wellesley and other top-tier universities not normally open to working-class and minority students — they explode in Cheers, jubilant mass Accommodates the student who obtained the golden ticket.
TM Landry, which married couple Mike and Tracy Landry founded in their kitchen in 2005, produced several of these videos in 2016 and 2017, attracting national media attention. The videos, pieced together in the early minutes of Accepted, a new documentary on TM Landry and the warped game of Monopoly for higher education, delivered a message that seemed full of hope and contentment, one echoed on the Today Show, CBS This Morning, Michelle Obama’s Twitter account and talk show. To Ellen DeGeneres: Here was a miracle school firing black students into their dream schools. TM Landry, despite the extreme difficulties, figured out a way to get in.
The film was accepted, directed by Dan Chen, and reveals a much more complex story through the eyes of four students from TM Landry’s 2019 class. As with many spirited viral videos, things weren’t quite what they seemed backstage. In November 2018, The New York Times published a file Investigation who found that TM Landry faked text, embellished apps, and mined stereotypes of black America to meet the needs of Ivy League schools eager for Cinderella stories of extreme hardship; It deceived parents and fostered a culture of alleged emotional and physical abuse, such as forcing students to kneel and berating them. Without formal instructions, the younger students were falling behind by several grade levels. (Al Landry denied falsifying the transcripts. Mike Landry told the Times that he sometimes hit students and could be tough, and that the kneeling was to teach humility, for five minutes at most.)
The article drops about halfway through Accepted, a coming-of-age movie that keeps a sensitive eye trained on students whose lives have been disrupted by scandal, and who have been left for nothing in a potholed education system. “We got into it wanting to tell the students’ story from their point of view,” Chen told the Guardian. “But there is still a magical realm around the school.” The Times article shattered this illusion, revealing a flawed school within a flawed college admissions system. “By exfoliating the magical kind of force field around him, we have to focus on the children as individuals, not as prodigy students in a prodigy school,” Qin said. “We saw their flaws, their hopes, their dreams, and their daily life as it really was without any of the baggage attached to them.”
Drawn by viral videos and TM Landry’s success in launching poor black students into the Ivy Leagues, Chen and producers Jesse Einstein and Jason Y Lee first visited the school in April 2018, with the intent of following many students from the 2019 class through standardized exams, the college application process, and chaos public in their final year. Among those students is Alicia, a bookworm who hopes that her mother, a Nigerian immigrant with stage 4 cancer, will live long enough to see her go to college. An animal lover, open but cautious, Adia needs a fresh start after grief over the loss of her parents and younger brother disrupts her education. Isaac, an aspiring engineer descended from oil workers, hopes to follow in the footsteps of his brother, a Landry University graduate who attended New York University. Kathy, an Asian American student, dreams of earning a college degree that will allow her to support her disabled mother and two sisters.
They were interested in Al Landris’ methods, which seemed strange at best, and unsettling at times. The school was set up in an abandoned warehouse – there are no classrooms, no formal classes, no textbooks. The older students seem to be teaching the younger ones. Students were at school six days a week, often from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mike Landry oversaw everything like a training sergeant, preaching hard work and the importance of individual will to overcome terrible stats—the percentage of black men who end up in prison, and the percentage of those who will die young. His daily calls and responses included “I love you” in various languages what he called “Mikenese” (the response was “kneel”).
There was an element “We are not from here, [so] “If the students themselves or the parents feel this is somehow along the rocky journey toward a better future, let’s investigate with openness and contradiction,” Chen said. But over time, the producers saw that they would get an offer. The students talked about the stress of participating in the documentary, torn between being honest and saying what Mike advised them to say.
“Even before the New York Times article was published, our relationship with the school had become very complex and very fraught,” Chen said. About a month before the article was published, a teacher who suddenly dropped out of school and the project invited the filmmakers to meet with a group of TM Landry’s former parents. “What I learned in the New York Times article is basically what they told us that day,” Chen said.
The team decided to put the film on hold, but they kept in touch with students and teachers who wanted to talk or seek help. They returned only when it was clear that many of the students wanted to express their personal experience at the heart of a whirlwind – mental health concerns, feelings of isolation and alienation, redefining their futures. “When we got back, he led the students to where they wanted the film to go,” Einstein told the Guardian.
Care was accepted not to do a republishing of the Times story or a clinical investigation of the facts in TM Landry — “there’s a really great report done by Katie Benner and Erica Green, and if anyone wants to delve into that, that’s there,” Einstein said. Instead, the second half of the film delves into the effects of four students who dropped out of school during their senior year. How Alicia copes with self-loathing and shame after scandal, How Isaac adjusts to a new school and a less ‘prestigious’ college path, How Adia deals with depression outside of TM Landry’s close-knit family, How Kathy deals with it all while fighting for $15,000 of tuition fees refunded from Landrys.
As the four try to determine their futures, another college admissions scandal strikes: Operation Farsighty Blues, in which wealthy white parents, including Hollywood stars like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid hundreds of thousands to get their children into elite schools, by bribing college officials and inflating grades. Testing and falsification of orders. In one scene, Adia and Isaac laugh at the absurdity and inequity of trying to get the Ivy spot. “We were so poor that we couldn’t bribe anyone to do our exams for us,” says Adia sarcastically.
“The difference is that in varsity blues people were trying to get off the hard work, and in TM Landry the kids were working really hard to go somewhere else, where they can then continue to work really, really hard,” Einstein said.
The accepted, after all, is not so much a judgment of TM Landry as a judgment of the elite of American universities, who embody pseudo-American ideals of merit and individuality. The film observes students, who are left to navigate shattered ideals in the wake of TM Landry, come to terms with that knowledge, and reform their ideas for success.
As Alicia wrote in her college essay, Read Aloud to Filmmakers: “Too often in our society, we think of the education of black children as a philosophical project. We see education as a gift to be given to black students rather than an accessible public good.”
“When you have these prodigious students pulling themselves through their boots, you don’t have to think about systematic persecution,” she continues. “And that’s just wrong, because you’re doing so much harm to every other student.”