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1.5 Million

By Alan Ng | June 8, 2023

Writer-director Gregory Hernandez’s 1.5 Million is a story of the Bronx, one of the poorest areas in New York and the United States, and the people who have dedicated themselves to building a better community. The documentary focuses squarely on the literacy crisis in the Bronx. As of 2016, only 56% of high school students are college ready. Thirty percent of third-grade students can read at that level, and 40% of children in the Bronx live under the poverty line.

From an aerial view, the Bronx should be doing much better than it is. With over 1.4 million residents (mostly people of color) and around ten colleges, in 2016, the Bronx had no school libraries, classroom libraries, and not a single bookstore. What they had was two free libraries serving the entire borough.

Filmed over four years, Hernandez documents the literacy history of the Bronx and the fight members of a community face bringing not only books but the love of reading to their community. 1.5 Million covers the brief period of time that Barnes & Noble opened a bookstore there. It didn’t last long, considering they had several in the neighboring boroughs. From the Barnes and Noble store, residents realized that the government was going to be of no help, and if the tide of literacy was going to change, its citizens would have to take charge.

As a film, this is your standard issues-based film, where citizens and experts take part in talking head interviews interspliced with B-roll footage of the subject matter. In this case, books, lots of books, and children reading books followed by title plates of statistics and historical notes.

“…in 2016, the Bronx had no school libraries, classroom libraries, and not a single bookstore.”

1.5 Million succeeds due to the director’s ability to tell a story from the interviews, B-roll footage, and title plate. The documentary opens with a brief history of the Bronx, which, admittedly, I know very little apart from movies and television. Hernandez paints the picture of a community struggling economically and socially but also one that loves the borough and is willing to come together to improve the quality of life. As much as people talk about wanting to leave, no one truly does.

The film then spotlights individuals willing to invest their time and resources to make a difference. Noelle Santos spent years trying to open a bookstore/wine bar called The Lit Bar in response to Banes & Noble leaving. We then shift to others who opened their own online and pop-up stores in the Bronx, as well as charitable organizations whose goal is to bring thousands of books into children’s hands.

Lastly, 1.5 Million discusses the importance of literacy for any community trying to evolve into something better. Yes, there are plenty of stats and common sense wisdom. There are also plenty of stories about individual children who blossomed from finding a love of reading. Not to get political, but the most dishearting scenes are politicians coming in and touting the successes of its citizens and claiming the victory as their own.

1.5 Million leans very much into the Bronx. Clearly, the filmmaker and subjects love their city and are willing to do anything they can for their community. While it might be easy to dismiss because it’s not your home, this movie will inspire any community who is tired of their city’s problems and expecting their elected leaders to come through for them. It’s called a community for a reason, and change is possible.

For screening information, visit the 1.5 Million official website.

1.5 Million (2023)

Directed and Written: Gregory Hernandez

Starring: Noelle Santos and others, etc.

Movie score: 7.5/10

1.5 Million Image

"…will inspire any community who is tired of their city's problems..."

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