Documentary film asks: Do all children have ‘The Right to Read?’


Credit: “The Right To Read” documentary by Jenny Mackenzie

“The Right to Read” documentary is the story of the early reading crisis in America.

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Jenny Mackenzie struggled with reading until she was 14. She often felt ashamed and learned to hide her vulnerability. 

I was quite closeted about it,” said Mackenzie, now 60. “I knew that I was a slow reader, but I was able to cover it up.” 

Fortunately, her parents came to the rescue. She was officially diagnosed with dyslexia and finally got the help she needed. Then she went on to earn a doctorate, becoming first a social worker and later an Emmy-winning filmmaker known for social justice-minded documentaries such as “Kick Like a Girl,” “Quiet Heroes,” and “Dying in Vein.” 

“It was super lucky for me that I came from a family that had access to resources,” the Utah-based filmmaker said. “They had the ability to get me tested back when testing was sort of new and cutting-edge.”

Her personal experience gave her sharp insights into the tragic nature of the country’s long-standing literacy crisis and a passion for equity that sparked her latest documentary, “The Right to Read,” which debuted at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and played to standing room only crowds at the SXSW EDU Conference.

Literacy, she notes, shouldn’t be a luxury item, something only the affluent can ensure for their children. Reading is a cornerstone skill that lays a foundation for all later learning, from math to science. Without it, students are denied access to the keys to higher education. 

“What we have to do is give a damn about these kids,” LeVar Burton, the film’s executive producer and famed host of PBS’s “Reading Rainbow,” has said. “That’s where it begins. It’s that basic, it’s that simple. We have to care.” 

Amid plunging test scores and a dawning realization that the widespread avoidance of phonics and other reading fundamentals, the hallmarks of structured literacy, has left many children behind, the film makes the case that reading is a civil right. If a significant proportion of the population is illiterate, advocates argue, it’s impossible for participatory democracy to thrive. You may have the right to vote, they say, but if you can’t read the ballot, there’s little point.

“Reading is essential,” said the Utah-based filmmaker. “How do you truly function in a democracy if you cannot fill out your health care forms? How do you function in a democracy when you can’t get your driver’s license or fill out job applications? Even if you are a blue-collar worker who is in construction, an electrician, or any trade job, how do you write up a bid?” 

The compelling 80-minute documentary exposes the nation’s literacy crisis through the lives of NAACP activist Kareem Weaver, rookie first-grade teacher Sabrina Causey, and the many Oakland children they engage as they teach them to read, and also families across the country. The documentary vividly puts a human face on the grim statistic that only a third of American fourth-graders can read well enough to qualify as proficient on the 2022 NAEP exam, known as the nation’s report card. 

“It’s a catastrophe,” Mackenzie said. “We should be screaming from the rooftops.”

As a teacher in Oakland, Weaver often faced classrooms where very few children could read at all.  He began to see how the failure to teach reading effectively in school was dooming an entire generation of children to live on the margins of the information age. 

“Illiteracy is the pipeline to prison,” Weaver has said. “It’s also the pipeline to homelessness. It’s the pipeline to unemployment and depression.” 

In the film, Causey, who often went home in tears after grueling days of watching students fail to learn how to read, decided to go rogue. She dumped the curriculum she was supposed to use in favor of a structured literacy approach, one backed by decades of exhaustive scientific research. Her new curriculum worked wonders with the children, but she had to put her career at risk to make it happen. 

“She’s so brave,” said Mackenzie. “She’s a hero, a courageous teacher who goes against district policy and flies under the radar for her own survival, all to be able to give the kids what they really need.”

Weaver and Causey join forces to adopt an evidenced-based approach steeped in the science of reading. For the record, Oakland Unified has since switched to a structured literacy program.

“Illiteracy is one of the most solvable issues of our time,” says Kymyona Burk, policy director for early literacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education think tank, in the film. “We have the research. We have the practice. We have to do what’s best for our children.”

Weaver argues that literacy is the definitive social justice issue of our time, citing Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist leader who was born into slavery, who said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” 

Many literacy advocates are hopeful that the film will eventually land a wide distribution deal and succeed where myriad studies, reports and panels have failed over the years, by actually inspiring people to take action. 

“The film does a great job highlighting racial inequity in literacy,” said Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a literacy specialist who helped mentor Causey, “and helping audiences who don’t even know that we have a literacy crisis understand what is at the root of the crisis and why it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

Demystifying what sounds to newbies like an arcane academic debate is the film’s mission. Mackenzie makes us care about the children in the film and want to help them find their voice.

“When it’s presented as just numbers, students meeting grade level, to many people it sounds like things they’ve heard before,” said Todd Collins, one of the organizers of the California Reading Coalition, a literacy advocacy group made up of organizations of literacy educators, advocates and researchers.But to see real children, families, teachers and communities dealing with it, the struggle is real, and people feel the need to do something about it.” 

While the filmmaker has high hopes that many states will begin to follow the lead of Tennessee, Mississippi and Colorado and mandate literacy reforms, she also believes real change has to come from the ground up. 

“California is in a heap of trouble,” she said. “Change is hard. It’s a culture shift. The people who are resistant to change are the loyalists who have drunk the Kool-Aid and been sharing that Kool-Aid in their classrooms.”

The bottom line for Mackenzie is sparking a sense of outrage on behalf of children that riles viewers up to agitate for change.

“A documentary is a compassion machine. It allows us to really empathize, to be in someone’s life intimately,” she said. “Do we care enough about our neighbor’s child being literate? Are we invested in that together? Will we cross political lines? Because this is not a partisan issue. This is about all of our children. As Kareem says, we’re all on the bus heading off the cliff.”

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