Hulu’s ‘Homeroom’ Revisits the Long, Strange Year of the Class of 2020

Remember the first months of the pandemic? Now imagine being a high school senior then, just months from graduating. Maybe you came across a graduation convoy or senior portraits hung from school fences. But it’s difficult to conceive what it was really like.

Peter Nicks’s Homeroom, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and recently began streaming on Hulu, provides a slice of that indelible, singular experience. Executive produced by Oakland native Ryan Coogler, Homeroom follows Oakland High School’s class of 2020 through an unprecedented year, as excitement about graduation turns to stress about college and calls to dismantle the school district’s dedicated police force collide with the rapidly encroaching COVID-19 pandemic and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

With respect and compassion, Nicks brings viewers into the lives of these young people, capturing rich and telling details that make fully human this oft-stereotyped demographic (urban youth of color). They mug for the camera, pose for selfies, scarf down cup noodles, and scroll through Instagram liking posts indiscriminately. You hear them in their own voices (hella is, of course, among the first words uttered in the film) as they gossip, worry, flex, joke around, and parse the chaotic world around them, often with striking clarity; some footage was taped by the students themselves or drawn from their social media accounts. Adults are afforded little speaking time, but among them is Mayor Libby Schaaf (once an Oakland teen herself), who heaps praise on them: “Know your power and claim it.” The youth later take that advice and march on her house to demand police reform.

This film concludes Nicks’s Oakland Trilogy, which, along with The Waiting Room (2012) and The Force (2017)—examining health care and criminal justice, respectively—composes a vérité portrait of a complex American city over a decade through the lens of its public institutions. (All three films are now available on Hulu.) Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman comes to mind, in particular his sprawling four-hour epic, City Hall, from last year, which similarly burrowed deep into Boston’s public services.

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