Why is it the words we write for ourselves are so much better than the words we write for others?–William Forrester, Finding Forrester
From his hide on the top floor of a turn of the 19th Century building, now surrounded by housing projects Forrester, in his bulky black pullover sweater and jammy bottoms, engages with life through a pair of binoculars. William Forrester (Sean Connery), the reclusive author of the film Finding Forrester, is said to be based on real life author of Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger. Certainly Forrester prefers his solitude, and the film provides us with a reason for this, whereas with Salinger the back story on his deal is left to conjecture.
When sixteen year old Jamal Wallace, enters Forrester’s apartment surreptitiously one night on a dare, he has no idea where he has landed as he falls into an open window from the fire escape. The old man living there is no ghost, as neighborhood legend would have it; he is very much alive as Jamal Wallace finds out in no uncertain terms. I was just grateful that young Wallace landed in William Forrester’s apartment and not Francis Bacon’s because things would have taken a decidedly different turn, anyway that’s a different movie.
Forrester and Wallace surprise and scare each other. Forrester chases Jamal Wallace out the front door, and in his haste to get away, Wallace leaves behind his backpack filled with his journals. When Forrester returns the backpack, by dropping it out of the window as Jamal Wallace is crossing the street, Wallace, after examining the contents, finds Forrester’s notes in red ink littered through his journals. Forrester has read them all. Wallace returns to Forrester’s apartment, curious about the notes, and a tenuous friendship begins.
This is a question in your writing: ‘What is it you want to do with the rest of your life?’
– William Forrester
Jamal Wallace, while underachieving in class to keep his street cred, excels in standardized exams, as well as on the basketball court bringing him to the attention of the prestigious and exclusive Mailor-Callow Prep School. I’d like to believe that scriptwriter Mike Rich was thinking of Norman Mailer and Simon Callow (an actor who’s written books on Orson Welles, Charles Dickens and Restoration Theatre) when he came up with the name for this school because to me, and probably only to me, it makes sense.
This school is the crucible where the character of Jamal Wallace will be forged, and Forrester knows this, even if Jamal doesn’t. Jamal knows racism: he’s a young Black man living in America. What he doesn’t know yet is the power of words, his own words, something that Forrester is intimately if not uncomfortably familiar with, and Forrester can see Jamal’s talent, his gift with words.
People fear what they can’t understand. Crawford cannot understand how a Black kid from the Bronx can write the way you do, and so he assumes you can’t. –William Forrester
I don’t know whether it’s niche casting or what, but teacher Robert Crawford, the character F. Murray Abraham portrays in Finding Forrester, is the very soul twin of Antonio Salieri, “patron saint of mediocrities”, whom Abraham portrayed in the film Amadeus. We learn that Forrester once used the carrot of a non-existent second novel to tantalize publishers away from publishing Crawford’s critical tome on American writers, including Forrester, because of Forrester’s contempt for Crawford’s pretentiousness. Now, that’s what I call vengeful. So, we have this situation where a beef already exists between these two. Into the breach steps the unknowing Jamal Wallace.
A lot of writers know the rules about writing,
but they don’t know how to write.– William Forrester
Throughout time many aspiring writers, who have become great writers, copied whole passages from writers they admired, as an exercise – a way to get into the head of that great writer, find their rhythm and approach. It is a wonderful thing to experience and a wonderful learning tool, especially for the autodidact. Forrester asks Jamal Wallace to type out an essay; he doesn’t say where the essay is from or who wrote it, he wants Wallace to get the feel of the way the words lay down next to each other on the page. Forrester’s only caveat is that whatever Jamal writes within the four walls of Forrester’s flat stays within those four walls. But Jamal is only sixteen. He makes a lot of promises he can’t keep, and this is one of them. It is this broken promise that gives Robert Crawford the ammo he needs to bring down Jamal Wallace, when Jamal turns in the essay as his own work. Of course, the essay was written by William Forrester, published many years ago in The New Yorker magazine.
Why would Jamal Wallace do such a thing? It’s simple: he has no self-belief. Until Forrester his writing and voracious appetite for literature were clandestine activities, because these were things that would ostracize him from his peers and alienate him from his family. Basketball was much easier for the people he knew and the world at large to understand, so basketball became the outward skill set and the focus of his conversation. This is a tough choice for anyone, let alone a sixteen year old to make: faith in what others expect of me or faith in what I expect of myself.
They always let you get but so far for they take everything away from you.
Busta Rhymes as Terrell Wallace, Finding Forrester
I really like this kid, Jamal Wallace because he has strengths that he doesn’t know he has until they are tested, and he doesn’t back down from those tests, especially in the midst of a confrontation in the classroom with Crawford where Jamal turns the tables on Crawford’s efforts to humiliate him. Subsequently, Crawford tries to put the screws to Jamal as does one of the Mailor-Callow board members, Dr. Spence (whose daughter, played by Anna Pacquin, has struck up a friendship with Jamal). If Jamal will write an apology to Crawford and read it before the class and win the school’s upcoming big basketball game all will be forgiven, and everything will go back to the way it was. If not Jamal must face expulsion. Of course, no one offers to put this in writing.
Jamal does not win the big game—on purpose. And this is where any objections anyone wants to raise about this film being yet another tale of the upstanding White man rescuing the down trodden Black youth fly out the window. With his decision about the basketball game, and let’s not forget it’s basketball, not the world of literature, where the world acknowledges Jamal Wallace’s gifts– Jamal’s decision not to win the game when he knows he can – this is where he truly becomes his own man.
So, when William Forrester leaves the safety of his womblike apartment, gets on his bike wearing a suit that probably last saw the light of day during the Disco era, and pedals over to the Mailor-Callow School to Jamal’s class, where he explains about the plagiarized essay and then reads a moving piece, written by Jamal, to the astonishment of the class and Robert Crawford, we know Jamal has already proven himself. We know as Forrester tells an incredulous Crawford that this is an act of friendship, nothing more and nothing less. We know that for William Forrester as well as for Jamal Wallace and the rest of us struggling to be writers, that all it takes is just one person to believe in you –just one.