Jon Voit has consistently been one of the finest actors around for the last 50 years. Not many would argue against that, but the film where I believe he has given his best performance of them all is in a very small, criminally under-seen movie. Conrack is based on the experiences of Pat Conroy about the end of his teaching career. After being fired from the Beuford School District, Conroy became a prolific author through a book in which he presented a composite of his experiences at the school district though slightly fictionalized and of course his great novel The Prince of Tides.
Jon Voit embodies the curiosity, the desire to learn, and most importantly the love that characterize every great teacher. Conroy takes a job at a school on a South Carolina delta island in 1969, an entirely black community that thought of itself as lucky to even have a school. But the school was so burdened by poverty and by the racism of those on the mainland that they couldn’t get any help from the state to educate their children. Conroy’s mission was just that, to educate. The movie never treats him as the generous, self-sacrificing, heroic white man that saves all the black children. That’s what a typical 1974 movie would do, but Conrack just lets him be a great teacher.
Being a great teacher, Conroy does have an immense positive impact on his kids and ultimately on the entire community, but it comes because of who the man really was, his sense of how to best fulfill the role of his vocation and the intimate connection between that sense of purpose and the kids of the island, not a contrived cinematic invention like The Blind Side or The Help that requires white people to save black people from their civil rights plights. There have been more than enough of those movies, but Conrack is so unusual in its ability to inspire by introducing us to a real group of people. He can only accomplish what he does because of the children, so he’s not praised any more than the kids are for their willingness to learn or the community is for its willingness to grow.
Just like the well-intentioned civil rights movies that are all about white characters (which this movie is thankfully not), there are far too many movies about educational systems that treat the teachers with hero worship, paying no attention to the flaws or the humanity of the teacher (like Dead Poets Society which will never admit that the suicide in the movie is actually the teacher’s fault or Music from the Heart that expects us to believe that a real person could be as harsh, condescending, and self-centered as Meryl Streep’s unfortunate portrayal of a real teacher—and a good teacher in real life—could have any kind of a positive impact on her students). But Conroy is a hippie and a goofball, something the rest of the North Carolina school district didn’t want anything to do with. The movie never sidesteps his flaws, it lets them speak for themselves.
Most of all the character we meet, as played by Jon Voit, is a real person, not in the common “based on a true story” sense but in the sense that Jon Voit’s portrayal of him is three-dimensional and fully realized. It may not be completely accurate to Pat Conroy’s life and experience, it’s not supposed to be, but it’s a real person. And through that one real person, we get to know the whole community. We get to know the kids who make a difference in his life. Of course he impacts they’re lives, he’s a great teacher, that’s what great teachers do. But most of what we get to see is the joy of how these kids impact him. After more than 30 years, I hope something comes about where people finally start watching this magnificent film. It occasionally appears on various streaming outlets, but seems to be removed as quickly as it’s added, so go to Justwatch.com periodically, and check for Conrack to find a way to watch this masterpiece.