“Gregory, get up! She’s having a seizure!”
Single father Greg Henson, 31, races to the emergency room, his aunt’s words still ringing in his ears, his 4-year-old daughter slumped over his shoulders.
“I felt helpless,” he says. “I felt like I was going to lose her.”
He slouches in a waiting room chair, hoping his baby will be okay.
It’s 3:28 a.m.
The last thing on his mind?
His Algebra I final in five-and-a-half hours.
Shortly before Henson’s epileptic daughter, Khloe, suffered a seizure, his brother had been shot, an injury that left the man’s abdomen a ridged zig-zag of gleaming silver sutures, more metal than flesh. As if that weren’t enough, Henson learned an outstanding warrant was sabotaging his efforts to expunge his criminal record.
A former drug dealer single-handedly raising a 4-year-old in inner-city Indianapolis, Henson is one of three Indianapolis adult high school students followed by Emmy-winning director Andrew Cohn for his 2016 documentary Night School. Cohn’s film, which won the Grand Prize and Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Heartland Film Festival, costars Melissa Lewis, a 53-year-old grandmother who wants to prove to herself she can pass algebra, and Shynika Jakes, a 26-year-old homeless Arby’s employee and aspiring nurse. The clock is ticking on all three students to pass the end-of-year Algebra I ECA exam, which they must do before they can graduate.
Night School, which will screen at the downtown IMAX at 7 p.m. June 15, 16, and 17, offers a stark look at the challenges returning high school students face, from unreliable transportation, to childcare, to work-school conflicts. Indianapolis residents will recognize Hoosier touchstones such as IndyGo buses, the Indianapolis City-County Building, and Indianapolis Star newspapers. But the film’s Indianapolis setting isn’t due to the city’s visual appeal—it’s because we have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.
Over eight months of shooting, a year of editing, 75 interviews, and more than 700 hours of film, Cohn captures an in-depth look at the personal and academic challenges Greg, Melissa, and Shynika face in their quest to graduate from The Excel Center, an Indianapolis charter school that allows adults to earn a Core 40 high school diploma.
Cohn was so invested in chronicling the experience of attending an inner-city high school that he moved from Brooklyn into a house in the neighborhood off 10th St., where The Excel Center is located.
“Living there was probably my greatest challenge while working on the film,” Cohn says. “It’s an area most people either just drive by or don’t want anything to do with. At one point, someone actually broke into my house while I was sleeping.”
Another challenge: The student body of The Excel Center is 92 percent African-American. “Making a film about the African-American experience as a white, affluent male was challenging,” he says. “It’s something I thought about every day: How does my perspective shape what I think about the experience and the way I’m going to tell those stories?”
Yet Cohn rejects attempts to pigeonhole him as a social-issue filmmaker, and says he tries to avoid championing a preconceived message in his work.
“I don’t like filmmakers who go in with an intended purpose, and then try to find subjects to relay that message,” he says. “I went in with the idea that I just wanted to look for great stories.”
IMAX Theater manager Craig Mince says Cohn’s film is just that, a “great story,” and one that needs to be told—and seen.
“It’s imperative for the local community to come to these theatrical screenings of local movies,” Mince says. “You get to interact with Andrew and one of the students, Melissa, and you’re supporting the concept of making movies not only in Indianapolis, but in Indiana.”
Henson’s daughter survived her seizure. But did he pass his Algebra I ECA?
You’ll have to see Night School to find out.
Night School will screen at 7 p.m. June 15, 16, and 17 at the IMAX Theater in the Indiana State Museum. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased here. Director Andrew Cohn and costar Melissa Lewis will be at each of the three screenings to answer questions. You can watch the Night School trailer here.