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The Renaud brothers, Brent and Craig, have made a career of telling difficult stories. The Little Rock-born documentarians have traveled the globe during the past decade, navigating war zones and wading through the bowels of society. Their films chart essential and pressing political and social issues of the day — the war in Iraq, drug abuse, elections — but never delve into critique. They film directly, without narration, without statistics, without any sort of commentary — just simply in dogged pursuit of the story.
That ethic serves them well in “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later,” the brothers' new documentary, which is scheduled to debut at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, on HBO. Within the swirl of national news coverage sure to surround the anniversary, their project stands as perhaps the best chance to stand out, to penetrate that ever-refreshing news cycle and to motivate people across the country to consider the legacy of integration.
The Renauds started this project more than a year ago, just as ground was broken for the National Historic Site Visitor Center across from Central. As they customarily do, the brothers spent months in research mode: They talked with students and teachers, sat in on classes and visited the cafeteria.
During their first few months on campus, Brent said in a recent phone interview, “What we kept getting from teachers and students, both black and white, was, ‘Are you going to tell the same old story of Central High? Or are you going to tell the real story? Are you going to just tell how far we've come and celebrate our victories? Or are you going to be bold enough to tell the story of what's going on here, about the fact that a lot of kids do get left behind?' ”
Archival footage provides a brief introduction, but the documentary is decidedly not a rehash of conflict and triumph. Instead, the filmmakers dive headlong into the dynamics of Central High today. The Renauds leave no stone uncovered: They film students white and black, failing and thriving, livid and apathetic; and teachers young and old, despondent and hopeful, pragmatic and angry. They film in classrooms, at lunch, on the playing fields, in students' homes and on the street. Everywhere, race is the central issue.
Along the way, familiar faces express familiar sentiments. Minnijean Brown Trickey of Little Rock, a vocal member of the Nine, worries about progress. Brandon Love, the black student body president and author of “Two Centrals” — an essay he submitted for college applications that the Arkansas Times published earlier this year — offers the essence of his argument: Central remains segregated, divided along an invisible line between Advanced Placement classes and the rest of the largely black school.
Nancy Rousseau, the school's principal, offers her customary refrain, caught on film during a Parent Teacher Association meeting attended almost entirely by white mothers: “We are continuing in our effort to pull more of our minority students into our upper-level classes. Is it perfect? No. But we've come a long way, too. We're working on things here.”
The most affecting scenes capture students in more candid moments. In a child development class, Shannon Ellender, a white teacher, asks her mostly black class why, statistically, blacks perform three or four grade levels below whites at Central? One animated black student says that blacks have more responsibility around the house. Another suggests that whites “have had it all fed on a silver spoon,” but blacks “have to work for everything.” Within this discussion, Ellender asks her students to raise their hand if a family member has been to prison. All of the black students, giggling knowingly, raise their hand. Then Ellender asks how many of their friends have been killed. Several students recount murders in grisly detail: One girl lost two uncles to drug deals gone bad, a boy's brother was tied up and burned to death in another drug deal that went awry and another girl's best friend was stabbed multiple times.
Later, in stark juxtaposition, the filmmakers follow Ellender to her after-school position as the school's golf coach. Her players, she says, have fathers who are doctors and chief executive officers of huge investment firms; she can't think of a mother who works. These students came to Central because of the academic prestige, she says. “I think we live in a different world than the black students,” says one skinny young golfer, ball cap cocked high. “When they're in high school they see their friends making a lot of money selling drugs or whatever. Where we are, we see older parents making money having a family. Our parents, I think, try to put that in our head. They see an easy way out and just try to go for it. They don't care about school.”
The Renauds further expose the broadness of the Central High spectrum as they travel home with several students. One white student lives in the Heights, drives an SUV and has an older brother (a Central alum) at Princeton; his mother is in the PTA. Another student, a 17-year-old aspiring black boxer, has been kicked out of the house by his mother, and is in danger of failing the ninth grade. Another black student, who takes Advanced Placement classes, lives in a tiny ramshackle house without a functioning stove, a working kitchen sink, or heating and air. Yet another black student, a 16-year-old black softball player, has two kids.
“When we're involved in a film, it really becomes our life completely,” Brent Renaud says. “We try to explore as much of it as we can.” To that end, the brothers filmed about 100 hours of footage — they typically work at a 10:1 ratio for what's shot and what's kept. The recent School Board melee, notably, isn't included. But within just 70 minutes, it's amazingly expansive.
All racial and socioeconomic groups get a say. So, too, do local activists and city leaders. They address myriad problems within and outside of the school: black-on-black violence, racism, illiteracy, parental apathy and government indifference.
The film concludes, powerfully, with candid archival footage of the Nine, who are wide-eyed, beaming and giggling — a little goofy even. They're not icons, they're kids.
“It's astonishing that we had 16- or 17-year-olds doing what adults should've been doing,” Brent Renaud says. “I think a lot of people think of Central High as a sort of a black cloud over the community that continues to put a spotlight on race relations in Arkansas, when, in truth, it's probably no better or no worse than any community in America.
“Minnijean always says, ‘Central High is in Little Rock, but it's not really about Little Rock. It's about our country as a whole.' So far, different people who've seen the film already — people in Chicago, New York, Detroit and San Francisco — are telling us, ‘It was exactly like that in my community. I never noticed it or I never thought about it like this.' It seems to be able to touch on a wider core. Just like Little Rock and Central told us about ourselves in 1957, I think Central High continues to do that today.”