LeVar Burton on “Star Trek: Picard,” literacy doc “The Right to Read”

Sitting in a sales space at a Hollywood espresso store throughout from LeVar Burton, there’s no denying the fervour in his eyes when he talks about literacy and the way studying just isn’t solely a device that unlocks doorways to success but additionally a civil proper.

Burton is without doubt one of the govt producers behind the documentary “The Right to Read,” directed by Jenny Mackenzie. The film, which premiered final weekend on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, follows NAACP activist and educator Kareem Weaver, first-grade trainer Sabrina Causey and two American households which can be all preventing for public faculty curricula based mostly within the science of studying.

Burton boarding the film was “fate,” say Mackenzie and Burton. As the host and govt producer of “Reading Rainbow,” the tutorial PBS youngsters’s present that premiered in 1983, he influenced generations of younger minds. Burton additionally portrayed Geordi La Forge, who affected a special age group with “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and Kunta Kinte, a defiant slave in “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Burton, and these characters he’s synonymous with, embody literacy, the longer term and freedom to many. These tenets, and the drive to be a champion for teenagers, proceed to gasoline Burton.

“We need to give all kids an opportunity to navigate their way out of their circumstance, whatever that circumstance is. It could be one of privilege,” he says. “It’s not in the case of the kids that we’re talking about, but that is a scenario that is dominant in this country. But for our kids, for kids of color, for marginalized kids, they have at least one strike against them because it’s challenging. We talk a lot today about diversity and inclusion, but inequality and exclusion is baked into the DNA of this country. And we have done precious little to address it.”

The Times caught up with Burton and Mackenzie the evening after the pink carpet premiere of Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” and earlier than the debut of “The Right to Read” on the Santa Barbara Film Festival to speak in regards to the film, its attain and objective, and what might be accomplished to assist the trigger.

Even when Kareem Weaver and the individuals round him in “The Right to Read” had give you an efficient solution to improve literacy, there was nonetheless pushback to together with it in the curriculum. How does the movie deal with an answer to assist children and get previous this mentality?

LeVar Burton: The resolution is multipronged, so far as I’m involved. And Kareem and applications like Kareem’s is one tine on the fork. We additionally must have a higher public consciousness in regards to the want and necessity to do a greater job of training our children. That’s one other tine on the fork. Public coverage is one other tine on the fork. But principally, what we’ve got to do is give a rattling about these children. That’s the place it begins. It’s that primary, it’s that straightforward. We must care.

First-grade trainer Sabrina Causey, left, prepares for her class with an assistant, Jess.


Jenny Mackenzie: “Is there a silver bullet to solving the illiteracy crisis?” Not actually, but when there’s one factor that may actually change issues, it’s early studying instruction that’s evidence-based. So there’s a resolution to illiteracy. We have the analysis, we’ve got the proof and we’ve got the follow. We simply aren’t implementing it as a result of as a substitute we’ve got prioritized, I believe, political traces and income over our kids’s studying charges. And that’s the most important problem — we aren’t wanting on the proof. But you do have academics that had been going above and past, that had been utilizing this system though possibly the district didn’t approve it simply but, in order that they stayed below the radar as a result of they had been nervous they’d get fired in the event that they weren’t utilizing the district-approved curricula.

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Burton: Then you confirmed, after all, the activists and the individuals which can be attempting to get the coverage modified. So I really feel such as you want all three of these. You want the mother and father, academics and the policymakers. The most necessary factor, although, is placing the instruments within the fingers of the youngsters so they will have the wherewithal going ahead to make it on this world to succeed in their full potential. Because nothing lower than the chance to satisfy your full potential in life is smart to me. Literacy is on the coronary heart of our democracy. And when you can’t learn, you may’t entry something and performance in a democracy.

Science, expertise, engineering and math, at the least within the final decade or so, appear to have taken over when it comes to a spotlight over studying. When did that occur, and can’t we prioritize all of them?

Burton: In my lifetime, I’ve gone to Capitol Hill and advocated for persevering with funding for PBS as a result of I believed in it as a public establishment that might assist stage the taking part in discipline. And each time I went as much as Capitol Hill, I used to be acutely conscious there have been plenty of politicians who had been actively attempting to chop funding to PBS. That’s why I used to be on the Hill with Fred Rogers, attempting to get them to proceed the funding of what I felt was a giant gun, proper? A giant device within the toolbox. PBS. And it has confirmed itself out over time to have been the best factor, on the proper time, for our children. I believe at this time we’re in a scenario the place we’ve got managed to politicize schooling. We are banning books, attempting to erase the voices of marginalized individuals, individuals of colour, just because we wish to punish them. And I don’t perceive how, like I’ve mentioned this for a very long time when it got here to slavery, how are you going to, as a person, father a toddler after which promote that youngster into slavery? I don’t know what sort of emotional calculus it’s a must to carry out with a view to try this.

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So you requested me how we received right here. I don’t know. But we’re right here, and we have to do one thing about it. We must cease spending a lot cash on conflict and weapons of conflict and cease sacrificing the schooling of our nation’s youngsters on the altar of weapons.

A man in a green sweater writes on a board.

Kareem Weaver, an Oakland NAACP activist and the primary topic of the documentary “The Right to Read,” writes on the board throughout a scene within the film.


Mackenzie: This just isn’t a brand new downside. As Kareem eloquently says within the movie, wanting on the lovely Frederick Douglass quote after which taking us 130 years later to Maya Angelou, that is what social justice is about, is actually preventing for equality in a foundational method. He quotes the Alabama slave code. People had been fined and never allowed to show Black individuals to learn. So this isn’t a brand new challenge.

Burton: Generations in the past, it will have been unlawful for me, a criminal offense punishable by whipping and even loss of life, simply to have the power, the best to learn. And in that temporary span, these three odd generations, I’ve change into an emblem for literacy on this nation. Frederick Douglass stood amongst them in all his glory and nonetheless they tried to disclaim his brilliance in his presence. There’s at all times going to be haters who wish to hate just because they mad.

After your movie premiered on the Santa Barbara Film Festival, how will your staff get it out for individuals to see with out distribution? Are you taking it to varsities across the nation?

Mackenzie: This is just the start. We’re so excited to get it out on the planet. But actually what a documentary is, I at all times discuss it as being a compassion machine. And a documentary, you hope that you simply entertain and encourage, however actually, a documentary is a catalyst to create dialog. And it’s a catalyst to then carry a movie into communities, enable choice makers, enable people who find themselves impacted — academics, principals, lawmakers — to actually have a dialog after which search for long-term sustainable change. The greatest piece for us, what we hope to see is Kareem’s imaginative and prescient of actually persevering with to push for and demand evidence-based studying instruction.

A young girl and her mom read during a scene in "The Right to Read."

Teresa Hunter and her daughter Ivy learn throughout a scene in “The Right to Read.”


Burton: We’ve wasted loads of time [on ineffective reading programs]. A variety of time coming again to the concept that it’s a phonics-based strategy that really does work.

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Mackenzie: We had been fortunate sufficient to get an enormous grant success. A exceptional social influence grant from the Pure Edge basis to run a yearlong social influence marketing campaign. This grant allows this effort to occur in all 50 states. I hope in a yr so many individuals could have seen the movie as a result of the movie is barely pretty much as good because the viewers.

Burton: And that’s why I’m right here, to try to shine a light-weight on Jenny’s and Kareem’s work. Because it really works, as a result of it’s necessary, as a result of it is a pathway for you, a reliable resolution to this a part of the issue.

Mackenzie: He offers you chills, doesn’t he? I imply, it’s actually at all times nice to have an govt producer concerned on this movie whose model identify — he’s probably the most trusted, revered, beloved individual, I believe, on this planet. Not simply round studying and early literacy, but additionally round racial justice work. So it’s simply this miracle that we received LeVar concerned, as a result of this has been his life’s work.

Burton: Here’s the factor. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m a agency believer, and there’s a cause for all issues. I dwell across the nook from Jenny and we stroll collectively within the neighborhood typically. So whenever you see how this needle has been thread, you may’t assist however agree that this was speculated to occur.

Thursday evening was the pink carpet premiere of “Star Trek: Picard” Season 3. Tell me about filming the brand new season.

Burton: [“Star Trek: Picard” was a] large reward from Terry Matalas and the showrunners. He’s actually created a love poem to the “Next Gen” crew and a possibility to actually full the circle on our journey. When “Nemesis” was launched over 20 years in the past, we didn’t understand it was our final movie, so there was no closure. This brings us closure, and I’m actually grateful for that as a result of I assumed the ship had sailed a very long time in the past. This was such a blessing. Terry additionally wrote a task for my daughter, Mica Burton, to play one in every of Geordi’s two daughters within the journey. And, you understand, I’ve seen it my total profession, from the Barrymores to the Bridges, Estevez-Sheens, you identify it. And I’m actually proud to have the ability to present a leg up for my children.

Being onscreen together with your daughter was …

The day she did her wardrobe becoming, she despatched me an image of her in an engineering uniform and I misplaced my s—!