A lot or a little?
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Giving Voice features students performing monologues from August Wilson's plays; most have mature themes. Violent acts -- a man slicing another's cheek with a razor, a woman threatening a man with a broken bottle -- are described but aren't actually shown. Some monologues refer to sex, but content doesn't get more explicit than talk of "making babies," "laying down and opening your legs," suggestive dancing, and a man putting his hand up a woman's skirt. Language is strong, with use of "f--king," "motherf--ker," "ass," and the "N" word. Wilson's mostly 20th-century Black characters deal with poverty, incarceration, and violence. Several of the teen performers talk about grappling with similar life experiences (one lost a brother to violence), but overall they're upbeat, with a positive outlook. They and others talk about how performing provides a creative outlet for self expression and, sometimes, a path for the future. Their passage through the August Wilson Monologue Competition is exciting, and end credits inform us that most of them have gone on to study acting at prestigious universities.
What's the story?
GIVING VOICE follows a handful of the hundreds of high school students participating in a national competition to perform monologues from August Wilson's plays. It was filmed in 2018, during the 10th annual edition of the competition, which was launched by some of Wilson's friends three years after his death from cancer at the age of 60. These friends and others -- including Wilson's wife, his longtime producer, and celebrity actors like Viola Davis and Denzel Washington who performed in adaptations of his plays -- talk about what Wilson's work has meant to them personally and to the Black community as a whole. Wilson wrote a series of 10 plays about the Black experience, covering the 10 decades of the 20th century; the film includes clips of him talking about his inspiration and artistic process. Only 20 students make it from regionals to the competition finals in New York City, where the winner will earn a chance to perform on Broadway. Viewers learn about the teens' home lives and backgrounds, find out what drew them to the theater and Wilson's work in particular, and follow in their excitement over the course of the competition.
Is it any good?
The central message of Giving Voice -- that Wilson's work remains remarkably contemporary and relevant -- is uniquely brought to life in this inspiring documentary. Rather than relying solely on celebrity talking heads and archive footage of Wilson discussing his work, the film personifies his legacy through teens who connect deeply to Wilson's plays and the theater arts. The students are mostly teens of color, though not all Black, and many come from impoverished backgrounds. They're all at an exhilarating, joyful, world-is-your-oyster moment in life.
In ways both obvious and more nuanced, the teens' experiences mirror so many of the realities that Wilson wrote about. Interviewees talk about Wilson's characters, their back stories, and how the cadence of their words feel so familiar. Seeing themselves and their own histories reflected in Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning works in turn imbues them with pride, purpose, and a sense of belonging. That Wilson's legacy remains so palpable and meaningful to young people today is striking. That some of the harsher historical realities he shone a light on still resonate with the teens -- and even inspire some to want to work for social change -- is exciting for them and stirring for viewers to see.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the various aspects of August Wilson's legacy, as described in Giving Voice. What is a legacy, exactly?
What are some examples of ways in which the students personally connected with Wilson's plays? Did you feel a similar connection?
Have you ever competed in anything? Was it a positive experience, even if you didn't win?
- On DVD or streaming: December 11, 2020
- Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Gerardo Navarro
- Directors: James D. Stern, Fernando Villena
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: High School, History
- Character strengths: Communication, Courage
- Run time: 87 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: strong language and some suggestive references
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 19, 2021
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