"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
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.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!