DCTV, approx. 70 min., Dir. Brent Renaud
To believe a desegregated school exists is a myth, at least that is the message behind Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. And after seeing the film, I have little to disagree with.
First and foremost, the film focuses on socioeconomic privileges and how they play out in our secondary education system. While the filmmakers may have felt that they were beating the viewers over the head with ideas like “how do parents attend PTA meetings when they work two jobs?” or “how is it that the golf team is all white at a school that is predominantly black?” they probably could have made more probing assertions about the nature of segregation at Little Rock Central. It seems an impossible contradiction, but I want documentary films to be both subtle and explicit, objective and inflammatory, which is something I haven’t come to grips with yet as a consumer or critic, I suppose.
Persons in the film seem divorced from the production qualities in their narratives, more so than other films I have seen. There is also a surreal quality of hearing and seeing biased perspectives that are out of touch with reality, a feeling that is brought to a head when a child in one classroom is asked by one of the original students who fought to be integrated to point out the historical irony in her classroom (seated to one side, the black students, and on the other, the white students). As with everything, the rhetorical effects of presentation loom large, but work on a more subtle and basic level in this film.
A positive is born of the passivity demonstrated by the subjects of the film: the opportunity for a viewer to feel the frustration at trying to forcibly integrate two cultures who are the products of their progenitors’ mistrust and economic trajectories. The irony for the viewer is that we can see the sociocultural factors that lead to their opinions, but do nothing to interject. The self-replication of systemic segregation is also demonstrated in the attitudes and opinions of those interviewed.
If you are waiting for overt racism to be revealed in any of the film’s subjects, don’t hold your breath. With every opinion as to why de facto segregation exists (as subjects put it: “two schools inside one school”) the viewer must make a determination as to the extent to which different opinions hold merit; oftentimes I was left with the unsatisfying conclusion that people in the film, even if they are lying, believe their explanations to be true. I once read a phrase that went something like this:
The conscience tells me ‘I did that,’ while the ego says, ‘that is not me, I could not have done that.’ The ego wins.
Self-perception dominates reality, and what is repeated by the film’s subjects (“people tend to associate with people they like regardless of color”) supplants the reality, which is that “the people they like” are most often of similar appearance to themselves.
In any case, the attentive viewer can see that race, class, appearance, and socioeconomic status are inextricably linked in terms of a high school education. You need only travel to any CPS school to experience the same frustration for yourself. The issue left unaddressed in the film (due to scope) is the attempt to fix problems associated with underserved members of our society, and that is an issue which should haunt and influence our decisions for our entire lives.