A Renaud Brothers HBO Documentary Film
The wave of desegregation that transformed the American South during the 1960s began at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957. The Renaud Brothers documentary LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL: 50 YEARS LATER examines the legacy of desegregation and looks at the challenges facing American education today. The exclusive HBO Documentary first aired September 25, 2007.
After Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and ordered the National Guard to prevent nine black teenagers from entering Central High School, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending troops from the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to protect the students as they entered the building.
But what is the legacy of the Civil Rights struggle for equal education today? To mark the 50th anniversary of the forced integration of Central High School, Little Rock natives Brent and Craig Renaud provide a candid look at the lives of contemporary Central High students.
For many Americans, the desegregation of Central High is merely a chapter in history books. But the students of Little Rock Central High live in the ever-present wake of this historic event, growing up amidst complex race, class and socio-economic issues. Today, though the school is desegregated, some say it is still not fully integrated .
Brent and Craig Renaud followed the lives of contemporary Central High students, teachers and administration, as well as community leaders, over the course of a year for this intimate documentary, visiting classes, school meetings and assemblies, teenagers’ homes and community events. Sharing the stories of both black and white students, the special reveals the opportunities and challenges facing them in and out of the classroom.
LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL: 50 YEARS LATER opens with Minnijean Brown, one of the original “Little Rock Nine,” revisiting Little Rock Central High. Standing before the school where she once walked amongst scornful chants, she expresses surprise at the intensity of her feelings, saying, “This is not supposed to be like this. It can’t be 50 years…I can’t feel this so strong. It just doesn’t make sense .”
The Advanced Placement program, which ranks Central among the top schools in the country, is largely populated by white students. Meanwhile, the regular classes are populated mostly by African-American students, raising timely questions about the state of public education, not just in Little Rock, but throughout America. Brandon Love, the school’s African-American student body president, says that in many ways “Central is still segregated. We just don’t need the National Guard to get into school anymore.”
Nancy Rousseau, Little Rock Central’s principal, speaks proudly of the school’s awards and achievements while acknowledging disparity, observing, “We are continuing in our effort to pull more of our minority students into our upper-level classes…Is it perfect? No, but we have come a long way, too…we are working on things here.”
Angelica Luster, a 15-year-old African-American who takes AP classes, believes something deeper may contribute to the lack of diversity in advanced classes, noting, “African-American students…think that just because there are so many white kids in that class, that because I’m black, I’m not going to be able to do well, so most people stay where they are comfortable, in regular classes.”
Parents, teachers, students and community members speak candidly about intertwined issues of race, class and opportunity in today’s Little Rock.
Central High teacher and golf coach Shannah Ellender says that the parents of the affluent students “send their kids to this school because Central is so well known and has so many academic opportunities and money thrown [at it]. These kids come for the academics and the reputation of the school…the lower-income kids are there because they are in the district, and that is where the bus takes them. And so it is two completely different ends of the spectrum.”
Teacher Angela Jackson also recognizes the differences, saying, “If you are living in an Advanced Placement world, you are out of reality when it comes to students in this school.” In fact, the communities around the school, where many students live, are deeply impoverished. Surveying the rundown houses, Little Rock City Councilman Ken Richardson remarks that Central High, which is now a national monument, is ” a symbol of how far we have come, but I think in many cases it is also a stark reminder of how far we have to go.”
Craig Renaud, himself an alumnus of Central High, reflects, “With the commemoration of the school’s desegregation later this fall, many people are wondering if we have lived up to the sacrifice that was made by those nine black teenagers who integrated Central High 50 years ago.”
When Minnijean Brown returns to the school to speak with a class, she is dismayed to find it self-segregated, noting, “We still line up on two sides of color, and if we keep on saying and talking about and doing the same things that we have been doing forever, we are going to stay the same.”
The New York Times
ABC World News Tonight
Christian Science Monitor
WNYC Leonard Lopate
International Documentary Association E-zine
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Harvard University Gazette
HBO Renaud Brothers Interview
Black American Web
Los Angeles Wave
All Your TV.com