LOS ANGELES — Sitting in a booth at a Hollywood coffee shop across from LeVar Burton, there’s no denying the passion in his eyes when he talks about literacy and how reading is not only a tool that unlocks doors to success but also a civil right.
Burton is one of the executive producers behind the documentary “The Right to Read,” directed by Jenny Mackenzie. The movie, which premiered last weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, follows NAACP activist and educator Kareem Weaver, first-grade teacher Sabrina Causey and two American families that are all fighting for public school curricula based in the science of reading.
Burton boarding the movie was “fate,” say Mackenzie and Burton. As the host and executive producer of “Reading Rainbow,” the educational PBS children’s show that premiered in 1983, he influenced generations of young minds. Burton also portrayed Geordi La Forge, who affected a different 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 future and freedom to many. These tenets, and the drive to be a champion for kids, continue to fuel 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 L.A. Times caught up with Burton and Mackenzie the night after the red carpet premiere of Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” and before the debut of “The Right to Read” at the Santa Barbara Film Festival to talk about the movie, its reach and purpose, and what can be done to help the cause.
Q: Even when Kareem Weaver and the people around him in “The Right to Read” had come up with an effective way to increase literacy, there was still pushback to including it in the curriculum. How does the film address a solution to help kids and get past this mentality?
Le Var Burton: The solution is multipronged, as far as I’m concerned. And Kareem and programs like Kareem’s is one tine on the fork. We also have to have a greater public awareness about the need and necessity to do a better job of educating our kids. That’s another tine on the fork. Public policy is another tine on the fork. But basically, what we have to do is give a damn about these kids. That’s where it begins. It’s that basic, it’s that simple. We have to care.
Jenny Mackenzie: “Is there a silver bullet to solving the illiteracy crisis?” Not truly, but if there’s one thing that can really change things, it is early reading instruction that is evidence-based. So there is a solution to illiteracy. We have the research, we have the evidence and we have the practice. We just aren’t implementing it because instead we have prioritized, I think, political lines and profits over our children’s reading rates. And that’s the biggest challenge — we aren’t looking at the evidence. But you do have teachers that were going above and beyond, that were using the program even though maybe the district didn’t approve it just yet, so they stayed under the radar because they were worried they’d get fired if they were not using the district-approved curricula.
Burton: Then you showed, of course, the activists and the people that are trying to get the policy changed. So I feel like you need all three of those. You need the parents, teachers and the policymakers. The most important thing, though, is putting the tools in the hands of the kids so they can have the wherewithal going forward to make it in this world to reach their full potential. Because nothing less than the opportunity to meet your full potential in life makes sense to me. Literacy is at the heart of our democracy. And if you can’t read, you can’t access anything and function in a democracy.
Q: Science, technology, engineering and math, at least in the last decade or so, seem to have taken over in terms of a focus over reading. When did that happen, and can’t we prioritize them all?
Burton: In my lifetime, I have gone to Capitol Hill and advocated for continuing funding for PBS because I believed in it as a public institution that could help level the playing field. And every time I went up to Capitol Hill, I was acutely aware there were a number of politicians who were actively trying to cut funding to PBS. That’s why I was on the Hill with Fred Rogers, trying to get them to continue the funding of what I felt was a big gun, right? A big tool in the toolbox. PBS. And it has proven itself out over time to have been the right thing, at the right time, for our kids. I think today we are in a situation where we have managed to politicize education. We are banning books, trying to erase the voices of marginalized people, people of color, simply because we want to punish them. And I don’t understand how, like I’ve said this for a long time when it came to slavery, how can you, as a man, father a child and then sell that child into slavery? I don’t know what kind of emotional calculus you have to perform in order to do that.
So you asked me how we got here. I don’t know. But we’re here, and we need to do something about it. We have to stop spending so much money on war and weapons of war and stop sacrificing the education of our nation’s children on the altar of guns.
Mackenzie: This is not a new problem. As Kareem eloquently says in the film, looking at the beautiful Frederick Douglass quote and then taking us 130 years later to Maya Angelou, this is what social justice is about, is really fighting for equality in a foundational way. He quotes the Alabama slave code. People were fined and not allowed to teach Black people to read. So this is not a new issue.
Burton: Generations ago, it would have been illegal for me, a crime punishable by whipping or even death, just to have the facility, the right to read. And in that brief span, those three odd generations, I’ve become a symbol for literacy in this country. Frederick Douglass stood among them in all his glory and still they tried to deny his brilliance in his presence. There’s always going to be haters who want to hate simply because they mad.
Q: After your film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, how will your team get it out for people to see without distribution? Are you taking it to schools around the country?
Mackenzie: This is just the beginning. We’re so excited to get it out in the world. But really what a documentary is, I always talk about it as being a compassion machine. And a documentary, you hope that you entertain and inspire, but really, a documentary is a catalyst to create conversation. And it’s a catalyst to then bring a film into communities, allow decision makers, allow people who are impacted — teachers, principals, lawmakers — to really have a conversation and then look for long-term sustainable change. The biggest piece for us, what we are hoping to see is Kareem’s vision of really continuing to push for and demand evidence-based reading instruction.
Burton: We’ve wasted a lot of time [on ineffective reading programs]. A lot of time coming back to the idea that it’s a phonics-based approach that actually does work.
Mackenzie: We were lucky enough to get a huge grant fulfillment. A remarkable social impact grant from the Pure Edge foundation to run a yearlong social impact campaign. This grant enables this effort to happen in all 50 states. I hope in a year so many people will have seen the film because the film is only as good as the audience.
Burton: And that’s why I’m here, to try and shine a light on Jenny’s and Kareem’s work. Because it works, because it’s important, because this is a pathway for you, a legitimate solution to this part of the problem.
Mackenzie: He gives you chills, doesn’t he? I mean, it’s really always great to have an executive producer involved in this film whose brand name — he is the most trusted, respected, loved person, I think, on this planet. Not just around reading and early literacy, but also around racial justice work. So it’s just this miracle that we got LeVar involved, because this has been his life’s work.
Burton: Here’s the thing. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m a firm believer, and there is a reason for all things. I live around the corner from Jenny and we walk together in the neighborhood sometimes. So when you see how this needle has been thread, you can’t help but agree that this was supposed to happen.
Q: The red carpet premiere of “Star Trek: Picard” Season 3 was last week. Tell me about filming the new season.
Burton: [“Star Trek: Picard” was a] huge gift from Terry Matalas and the showrunners. He’s really created a love poem to the “Next Gen” crew and an opportunity to really complete the circle on our journey. When “Nemesis” was released over 20 years ago, we didn’t know it was our last film, so there was no closure. This brings us closure, and I’m really grateful for that because I thought the ship had sailed a long time ago. This was such a blessing. Terry also wrote a role for my daughter, Mica Burton, to play one of Geordi’s two daughters in the adventure. And, you know, I’ve seen it my entire career, from the Barrymores to the Bridges, Estevez-Sheens, you name it. And I’m really proud to be able to provide a leg up for my kids.
Q: Being onscreen with your daughter was …
A: The day she did her wardrobe fitting, she sent me a picture of her in an engineering uniform and I lost my s—!