It’s a Hollywood trope we’ve seen dozens of times—the inspirational, unconventional teacher who changes the lives of his students. Yup, by this point, we’ve been Dead Poet-ed to death, Stand and Deliver-ed to the point of exhaustion. Then, comes a film like Wright’s Law—Zack Conkle’s quietly beautifully, genuinely inspiring tale of a Kentucky high school teacher—and you begin to rethink your take on the whole formula. Instead of fatigue, you look on with fresh eyes, watching with silent wonder as physics teacher Jeffrey Wright shares his personal story with the teenagers in his classes, and you realize that he truly is changing the way they view the world.
Jeffrey Wright is the crazy one—the energetic, avant-garde teacher whose class everyone wants to take. His lessons are fun, his methods unorthodox. He makes physics seem “cool.” But, Wright’s Law isn’t just a portrait about some eccentric science instructor that makes kids want to learn through creative antics. The film slowly develops into a story of a loving family man who is faced with the challenges of a raising a special needs son—a journey that starts with anger and frustration, but ultimately ends with an unflinching belief in love and human connection.
The beauty of Wright’s Law is that it’s a nuanced take on a subject that could have very easily been overwrought. Conkle lets his images do the heavy lifting for him, wisely choosing not to supplement things with unnecessary fluff. As a filmmaker, Conkle isn’t suggesting that Jeffrey Wright is changing the lives of his students in some sort of melodramatic, gushy way—the kind of thing backed by a manipulative musical score telling you how and what you should feel. Instead, Wright just unceremoniously shares his own story, explaining how he was able to formulate an understanding of life that goes beyond a clinical analysis. As a science teacher, Wright may believe that facts can explain and define our world, but it takes a personal and emotional connection to understand our place in it.
Conkle was himself a student of Jeffrey Wright, graduating from Louisville Male High School in 2008 before attending Western Kentucky University where his focus was photojournalism. Still images may be Conkle’s primary concentration, but with Wright’s Law, it’s clear that he’s a gifted documentary filmmaker as well. The short has gone on to win the multimedia category from this year’s College Photographer of the Year Awards, and, his work has also been recognized by the Hearst Journalism Awards Program and by Photophilanthropy—not too shabby for a photographer who has only just graduated college. His work is proof that the best stories are always just under our gaze, waiting silently for a talented eye to pluck them out and highlight them for all the world to see.