Each year in Oakland, California, children from over 120 schools, ages ranging from preschool level through 12th grade are given the opportunity to compete in the Martin Luther King Oratorical Festival. More than a competition, the MLK Oratorical Festival becomes a learning moment for the youth and an opportunity for them to speak confidently in front of large crowds, sharing both the words of Dr. King and their own original content, while also mastering their posture and cadence in a way that may have never been available to them before.
Now, the history behind the competition, the organizers and the children who participate are being highlighted in the new HBO documentary We Are The Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest. Directed and produced by Amy Schatz and executive produced by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali and Amatus Karim-Ali, the documentary is a warm reminder that if we continue to pour into our children, not all hope is lost.
A moving, feel-good documentary, We Are The Dream chronicles the 2019 competition, which also aligns with the 40th anniversary of the MLK Fest. While presenting the Oakland community as a backdrop, Schatz makes it clear that the MLK Oratorical Fest is a tradition that is deeply embedded into the hearts of the city’s long-term residents. Still, what stands out in the doc are the educators who have remained committed to the children, despite dwindling resources and an increasingly fast-paced digital world. These teachers and mentors take the time to foster relationships with young people so they can feel encouraged and supported, allowing the audience to learn from these fresh and unjaded minds
We Are The Dream highlights several standout children. There’s Gregory, who recites from Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech; Sri Lankan born Karunyan, who became fascinated by Dr. King’s message after moving to America; and Lovely, who is encouraged by her father to write an original poem. Like all of the kids in the competition, these children stand fearless in the wake of a very tumultuous world.
It can sometimes feel like not much has changed since the civil rights movement regarding social justice, racial equality and immigration reform. It’s certainly no secret that this country has taken several steps back since the 2016 Presidential election. However, putting a spotlight on the next generation that is trying to find their way in the wake of our mistakes will undoubtedly fill viewers with hope. This film is about being seen, the power of words and understanding that if we allow children to examine the world through their own eyes, we might be alright in the end.
We Are The Dream premieres February 18, 2020, at 7 p.m. ET on HBO.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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