The Reading Room, Hallmark’s latest feel-good motion picture for television, has everything … except a strong, credible storyline.
Thanks to the presence of James Earl Jones, Tim Reid and other actors, and the directorial work of Emmy-winner Georg Stanford Brown, the movie is saved from drowning in Randy Feldman’s lukewarm, sappy teleplay which struggles to “be real” … and relevant.
. Jones, an Academy Awards nominee, three-time Emmy Awards winner and Golden Globe Award-winner stars as a recent widower William Campbell seeking to honor his wife Helen’s dying request that he open a reading room in a low-income neighborhood. The wealthy businessman, who was born and raised in the same neighborhood, sets out to establish and run the reading center in one of the buildings he owns.
After three months, according to the death-bed wishes of his beloved wife, he can drop the program if he wants. And, as with many films set in low income environs — translate: urban and ethnic, the overriding theme centers on overcoming-adversity-against-all-odds.
Unfortunately, in The Reading Room there is more concentration on Campbell’s internal struggle – which amounts to Campbell glancing at a calendar to mark time — than there is on the problems of struggling with reading, which reportedly affects 20% of the nation’s children.
The “do-gooder” Campbell is challenged by characters straight out of 21st century blackploitation casting, including surly, burly tough guys, the “hater” who becomes a motivator, a baby daddy, a baby mama, the overpushy protective mom, the skeptical minister and more. On the “kinder-gentler” side of things, there’s the teacher, an at-first reluctant tutor, a long-suffering teen with hair challenges… all wanting to win something, on one level or another.
And, speaking of scoring, on the tail end, there are the obligatory nonreaders who learn that reading is indeed fun. By the end of the two hours, they will be “stars.” Did we mention the next-door beauty shop?
That you don’t really see the soon-to-be reader inching towards his goal; that you know there are parents in neighborhoods, inner and otherwise, across the nation, who would drag their kids to such a haven where tutelage is free; that a minister would cop an attitude with a potential goldmine of a resource; that the distribution of flyers or glossy cards is the very first – and for this businessman, cheap – step towards creating awareness in the ‘hood along with perhaps distributing free teeshirts – but free soda?
Cutting to the chase: living stories borne from real people and their good works abound in the very neighborhoods this film’s protagonist sets out to reclaim and help build. Except, unlike Campbell, these are real people. We don’t have to look far to name them. In central Brooklyn alone, there’s Lemuel Mials and his staff at the Von King Park Cultural Arts Center; Tohma Faulkner, Brenda Fryson, and the Bed-Stuy Brownstoners’ core membership, Pamela Greene and Joan Maynard of Weeksville, Restoration’s “Rite Center”, the founders of the Malcolm X Library in Crown Heights and more.
In fact , Mr. Jones’ own story is primary material for a movie or book. His enslaved great-great-grandmother taught his great-great-grandfather to read. “They did it in secret and at no small peril,” Mr. Jones said to a writer, adding, “and those who taught (the enslaved) to read, or who were discovered with books were punished because reading was acknowledged as freedom.” (Oh that those words could have gushed from Jones’ Campbell!)
Mr. Jones recently told a Congressional Subcommittee on Education Reform that 100 million Americans have “very low literacy skills”, with some not able to read above sixth grade level.
Several million viewers would learn a lot if Jones’ Campbell even mentioned that bit of information.
They might also learn a lot more if they play word games like Scrabble on Saturday, November 26, 9pm -11pm (check local listings) than visit “The Reading Room.”