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50 Years Later: The Renaud Brothers Revisit the Legacy of Little Rock

By Kathleen Fairweather

In 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional was handed down by the US Supreme Court. Integration, however, was not a spontaneous event in the South, and it took nearly three years after that decision for the NAACP to help register nine black students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The response by the Little Rock community was immediate, as local segregationists threatened to block the admission of these students, who would come to be known as "The Little Rock Nine." In response to this crisis, Governor Orville Faubus sent in the Arkansas National Guard--in support of the segregationists. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered by sending in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect the students.

Images of an angry white mob and a line of soldiers blocking nine black students from entering Central High School made national headlines and further divided the Little Rock community. Today, Central High School is fully integrated and strives toward rectifying the past, but it is still representative of the equal but separate education received by most minority students in the US today.

In commemoration of this historical event, filmmakers Craig and Brent Renaud, graduates of Central High School, recently revisited their alma mater to film Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (Downtown Community TV, producer), which premieres on HBO September 25. We caught up with the Renaud Brothers in New York to discuss the making of this documentary.

IDA: You went to Central High yourselves. What was it like to come back and film? Were you aware of the issues at Central when you were students?

Craig and Brent Renaud: It has been a number of years since we were high school students in Little Rock, and ever since we started our career in filmmaking, we have always talked about making a film at Central High School. It's such an incredible place and the history so important. With the 50th anniversary coming up, and so many networks and filmmakers wanting to cover this historical event, we were fortunate enough to be the ones who were granted complete and full access to the school in the year leading up to the anniversary.

We walked into this project knowing that we had a unique opportunity at a very important moment in history, but we did not set out to make any particular kind of film. We wanted it to look back at history, but the film should be very rooted in the now. As is our normal routine when researching a film, we spent many months at the school before filming began, speaking to hundreds of students, faculty and people in the community about what Central High represents to them 50 years after the desegregation crisis.

Central has always had an outstanding reputation in education, but not to the extent that it does today, ranking among the top high schools in the country for its advanced placement classes. But along with the praise for the quality of academics has also come criticism that the advanced placement tract has very few minority students in it, despite the fact the African-Americans make up the majority of students in the school. It is quite striking to walk around a school that is majority black and then slip into an AP class, and suddenly it's as if those students have almost completely disappeared. Teachers particularly wanted to stress their concern about this issue, and classroom after classroom in which students were studying the crisis of 50 years ago, this issue continued to come up. And the feeling was that the problem was getting even worse, that the achievement gap between blacks and whites was growing, especially with young black males falling further and further behind.

The interesting thing is that people who have seen this film from around the country have told us the situation in their schools is very similar to how it is at Central High. So just as Central was a symbol for the country 50 years ago, the situation at Central today is also symbolic of things going on around the country, and reflects greater societal issues.

IDA: Did you receive any negative feedback or pressure from the school to "make it pretty"?

C&BR: We received complete access to the school for a full year, and had no restrictions on what we could film. Ms. Rousseau, the principal, is very proud of her school and has nothing to hide.

However, before we were even aware of the issues of "two schools in one" at Central High, and before we even began filming, teachers and students came up to us and repeatedly said, "Are you going to tell the real story of the segregated Central High, or the PR story of Central High that is bragged about nationally?"

We wanted to tell an honest story that did not take either side, and knew we could do that by selecting a diverse group of students and letting them tell us about the school and their lives.

IDA: Did you observe any change since you graduated, for better or worse?

C&BR: We don't think it's a change necessarily, but it is important to note that the vast majority of people in the film, and at Central High, have the best intentions when it comes to race relations and addressing the problems related to it. The kind of outward racism we saw in 1957 at Central High and around the South is by and large a thing of the past. The problem that remains is that we don't understand each other's stories, life experiences and where we are coming from. And because of that we rarely get together and make the kind of positive decisions that might improve things for everyone. As Minnijean Brown, one of the original Little Rock Nine, says in the film, "If you look at Little Rock today, we still line up on two sides of color. And if we keep on saying and talking about and doing the same things forever, we are going to stay the same."

IDA: What kind of response are you expecting from the community?

C&BR: We gave up trying to predict how people will react to our films a long time ago. Whether people like our films or not, we have never had someone say we presented them unfairly, or put an unfair amount of spin on a story. This is probably because we are not afraid of reality. Many filmmakers today do not trust reality to produce the results they desire for their film, and they only present the truth as they see it. It doesn't matter what people's opinions are to us, it's their story and that's what we want to tell. No matter what opinion the viewer has about race relations and education in America, they will find that opinion expressed in our film by someone. It's about telling the stories behind the headlines, understanding the players involved and what they are about that can bring something new to an issue.

Sometimes it frustrates people that they do not know precisely what our point of view is in a film. This is probably because so much of documentary film these days is made by activists, and that's what people are becoming accustomed to. The result is that a good portion of the community tunes out documentaries. We want our film to speak something to everyone who watches it.

IDA: Little Rock seems destined to be forever defined by the Crisis. Is it a burden, a shadow, a legacy that everyone wishes would go away?

C&BR: Because of the Crisis at Central High in 1957, racial issues and Little Rock will forever be synonymous, and the spotlight will not go away. And some people in Little Rock resent this, because a lot of people here have tried very hard to improve the image of Little Rock and deal with our racial problems. And many feel, and probably rightly so, that Little Rock is unfairly singled out and is in fact no worse in terms of segregation and racial problems than many cities around the country.

One of the subjects of our film, a mother of one of the students, said that for a long time she felt the Crisis at Central High was a black eye on Little Rock. But now she feels differently, and sees it as a useful barometer by which to measure how far we have come as a society, and to keep us honest.

We look at it like this: What happened at Central High was of major national significance. And what those nine black students endured in Little Rock in 1957 was heroic, and should never be forgotten. We owe it to the legacy of the Little Rock Nine, and many others who gave so much during the Civil Rights era, to question every day of our lives how well we have lived up to their ideals and the progress we have made with race relations in this country.

We actually feel like over the last few years Little Rock has begun to embrace the events of 1957 in a much more positive way. Some of it is, no doubt, because Central High is a major tourist attraction in our city, but a very positive effect is that the continued attention on Central High has blown open the discussion on race in Little Rock, and in many ways we find the issues dealt with in a more honest and open way than people do in many parts of the country.

IDA: Minnijean Brown seems to have let this incident influence her whole life. Did you observe that in the other eight of the Little Rock Nine? Why didn't they participate in your film?

C&BR: Minnijean Brown is a national hero, as are all the Little Rock Nine, and to this day she is intimately involved with Central High and its students, and her daughter Spirit works as a park ranger at the school's museum, educating thousands of visitors each year to the school about the crisis of 1957. Brown in particular has made the legacy of the Little Rock Nine her life's work. She continues to travel the country and the world lecturing and sharing her story. This is why we wanted her to be in the film--she is the link to the past, showing us what it was like for her as a teenager being denied the basic rights of education for racist reasons, and connecting the struggle of the past to modern day.

All of the Little Rock Nine have led accomplished lives. But we didn't want this story to be about the past. Minnijean provided us that important link to the past and gave us the context, but this is a film about the students at Central High today, and most of the time in the film goes to them.

IDA: What were the biggest challenges making this film?

The biggest challenge in making any film is the editing. We spent an entire year at the school and had to work that into one 70-minute film. We wanted to make sure all the voices, or as many as possible in the conversation, were heard. One viewer was not sure what race the filmmakers were or what their political opinions on the issue were. That's a great response for us, and means at least partly we succeeded in what we were trying to do.

IDA: You obviously spent quite a bit of time at Central as a student and doc maker. Did you observe much in the way of interracial friendships/dating?

C&BR: There are certainly interracial friendships at Central, but these friendships are often based around activities at the school, like clubs and sports. Most of the white and black students don't take classes together and go home to different parts of town. But this film is not about the kind of racism that keeps people segregated by philosophy. Most people at Central enjoy the diversity of the school and wish there was more integration. The reality is that it just usually does not happen. Our life experiences are so different, our histories so complex, and our ability to understand each other and connect is so strained, that these things just don't happen as often as they should.

IDA: Any other issues you'd like to address?

C&BR: There are two things that are not helpful when it comes to dealing with the kind of racial issues raised in this film--one is pointing fingers and blaming each other and the other one is making excuses about why the issues persist. We tried to avoid both things in this film. Hopefully people can listen to the stories of these kids, and understand a bit more about why we are, where we are. Or at least re-examine their assumptions. Only then might we be able to move forward.

Kathleen Fairweather is a former editor of Documentary magazine. She currently resides in Little Rock, where she is editing If It's Tuesday I Must Be Moving, her doc on modern-day nomads.