REVIEW: After Parkland: Making a Highly Politicized Tragedy Personal

It is by no coincidence that the first time I watched After Parkland marked two years since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  . Not two and a half hours from my own high school at the time, Parkland was viscerally real. So real, that I poured over social media that afternoon. In a devastated haze, I watched the now infamous Snapchat video (the audio is heard in the first few minutes of the documentary) of gunshots echoing in a classroom, drowning out every cry one could hear in the silence. With every piercing sound, I thought of myself trying to supress my grief. With every silence, no matter how ephemeral, I imagined losing a peer, a teacher, a friend. 

Two days later, I was placed in a group chat to organize a student response. I was 16 and a child of a highly conservative family. I was not experienced in vocalizing my own opinions beyond the occasional social media post, intimidated by the lead organizer who was extremely well-versed in the political world. For the next week, our small group of four expanded to five hundred students that were interested in creating a walkout. We discussed walkout plans with our administration and teachers. And every day, without fail, we would come back to social media to see David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Change the Ref, Cameron Kasky. They made us believe we could take action. They helped catalyze our restless efforts for gun reform. 

When the walkout finally came in April 2018, I do not remember what I said. I remember my shaking hands and yelling through the tears that were pooling. I heard the gunshots. I heard the screams. I saw the faces of Joaquin,Meadow, and every other victim seen in countless threads on Twitter. I looked into that crowd of students to see my peers weeping at my words. Every person there had a different story than mine. I can not tell you what videos they watched or what faces they saw. I cannot tell you what I read. It was all one continuous blur of grief for voices taken too soon. 

Yet, at that moment, I knew that Parkland was a turning point. Less than two hundred miles away, we could not erase the massacre and its victims from our minds, no matter how hard we tried. In every code red we had after Parkland, I would watch all of us freeze in absolute fear. It was not a matter of if it would happen, but when. I had to wait for clarification that fire drills were in fact drills instead of someone aiming to gather students in one area at once. When we walked into school, we had bag checks and metal detectors for a year afterward. They said it was a new normal, but nothing seemed normal to me after Parkland. 

One must be asking why I would pour these thoughts out for reviewing this documentary. Why would I, not personally affected by Parkland, be so focused on my own response to the tragedy? The answer is simple: my high school experience was shaped around this massacre. To imply that this review is completely objective would diminish my point entirely, because at its core, After Parkland evokes the personal component of many Parkland activists. Despite their divergent opinions regarding how to deal with the massacre, the film is entirely humanistic. Parkland hangs over every person in a way it is impossible to argue with their calls to action. It takes no shame in calling for the need for reform, but does not place these words into its subjects. In times of tragedy, we are reminded of unity instead of division. Action, therefore, is able to be called upon in this solidarity. 

By deciding to focus on the personal aspects of tragedy, After Parkland does something remarkable: it allows for every narrative to speak for itself. After seeing many of these faces in the media, I find that the personal is lost. After Parkland humanizes every individual, showing how greatly affected they are in the wake of such events. It does not dwell on the aspects of the narrative that it assumes the viewer (rightly) knows. Instead, we are given the key components and the personalities behind them. In a way, it demystifies what the event became and takes it back to its roots – that gun violence should never leave parents to bury their children and for people to lose their best friend. 

Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, helped pass legislation in the state capital. In his grief, he urges the viewer to not politicize his daughter’s death as a hallmark for gun reform, instead making a case for mental health reform. Openly emotional watching his daughter’s best friends getting ready for prom, he declares his love for Meadow in every act he does. It hurts to watch him declare how much he has ‘aged’ due to his daughter’s passing. Simply, he states that “you see these kids talk and my kid couldn’t talk.” Instead of targeting U.S gun laws, he plans to create a playground, where he describes it as “a place where a princess would go.” Every moment focused on him was a weight, yet the directors do not aim to define his emotions, instead letting him speak of his own love for his daughter. It is a method that is so effective in relating the tragedy to the everyday viewer that at times, the sense of grief is overwhelming. It never negates that these were people that we lossed. 

By contrast, David Hogg’s journey involves activism against gun violence. It is incredibly moving to see how his opinion of gun violence expanded beyond Parkland. At the start of the film, he declares that his voice is necessary to speak for those that are no longer able to. Indeed necessary at the time to get state/federal action for gun reform, his shift to broader concerns on gun violence allows him to use his platform to elevate minority voices. In his own words, the “…system rigged against youth and poor people.” His optimism extends beyond Florida and into other communities. His multi-faceted vision on gun control elevates the reductionist analysis of Parkland as simply a catalyst for gun control. Instead, class consciousness is enacted in order to discuss a plurality of issues. It is a fascinating look on how he matured and changed his opinions over time, taking the issue to a much more national issue beyond the individual. 

What moved me most, however, was the story of Joaquin’s parents Manuel and Patricia Oliver, and his girlfriend Victoria. I have been an avid follower of Manuel’s non-profit organization Change the Ref for years. Using performance art and community action, Joaquin’s parents create incredibly impactful statements regarding the need for gun reform. The most impactful shot in the film, to me, was the art piece Manuel created during the Change the Ref event, slamming his hammer into a graffiti-style board. Joaquin’s girlfriend Victoria sits in the audience, watching in silence, tearing up. While Manuel describes that it is “not me being an artist it’s my son Joaquin being an activist”, I still find that his ability to create such an impactful piece, mimicking gunshots with the sound of his hammer. It was, and is a direct target at the United States’ inaction toward gun reform. He maintains that his son is his inspiration for all of his work, and he hopes that Joaquin can live on to act as a catalyst for this change.

Beyond this activism, however, there is an undeniable sense of family between the Olivers and Victoria. It is a relationship that is bonded by their mutual love for Joaquin. In every shot they were in, the three seemed as close as family. While they all lost someone they deeply cared about, they were able  to carve a space in which they were all able to grieve and build each other up. 

Overall, After Parkland is an intensely intimate look at how those deal with tragedy. After such a publicized event, the film documents the personal narratives unable to be told by the media. In a sense, it is a testament to how the event shaped everyone affected by it. In this monumental task of documenting Parkland, the directors allow their interviewees to speak for themselves and speak for what needs to be changed. It is a film necessary to understand the effects of gun violence and how to maintain the same fervor as 2018 to create legislation to prevent this from ever happening again. 

Dir: Jake Lefferman, Emily Taguchi

Prod: Steven Baker, Douglas Blush, Jeanmarie Condon, Jake Lefferman, Eric Johnson, Emily Taguchi

Cast: David Hogg, Andrew Pollack, Victoria Gonzalez, Dillon McCooty, Samuel Zeif, Manuel Oliver, Patricia Oliver

Available On: Hulu