I never learned for sure why Denzel didn't want me on the picture. Maybe he wanted someone with more "street cred" to handle a gritty urban story like Training Day. (It was eventually directed by Antoine Fuqua, and won Denzel the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2001.) But whatever the reason for my dismissal, it left me brokenhearted and disillusioned with Hollywood.
And as it turned out, this became the impetus for me to go back to my father's roots in the world of documentaries. At the same time I was developing Training Day, I'd been thinking about making a documentary about a group of teachers that I'd read about who inspired me deeply. Education was just becoming a personal issue for me; I had a newborn child, just five or six months old, several years away from going to school himself. But the story of these teachers, working in Los Angeles public schools with the support of a brand-new, very ambitious educational program called Teach for America, was one that gripped me.
These young teachers going into inner-city schools reminded me of my dad's era. When I heard Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, speak about her idea for revitalizing public schools through a new kind of "domestic Peace Corps" program and infusing them with the energy of bright young people, it felt as if the spirit of the sixties was being reborn...that feeling of idealism, hope, and commitment to making the world a better place. So this concept touched me in a lot of ways, and made me say, "This is a story that needs to be told."
I spent a year following those five young teachers through their first year in the classroom, and the result was my first documentary, The First Year.
As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous when my dad attended an early screening of The First Year in Washington, D.C. There was no critic in the world whose opinion of the movie was more important to me. In the middle of the show, I ducked out of the theater to take a walk...something I often do during screenings because, as the director, I've seen the footage so many times before. On my way out, I caught a glimpse of my father in the back of the room, pacing and looking at the screen, a little nervous but totally absorbed, maybe the way Archie Manning watches Peyton or Eli quarterbacking an NFL game. He was watching his son and what he'd done with his first documentary. Dad didn't see me, but I could see him. I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but his eyes were bright with energy, and he was engaged. I think he was proud.
That was one of the great moments of my life.