Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later (review)

If the news that’s been coming out of Jena, Louisiana, where schoolyard “pranks” revealed just barely submerged racial tensions, has you — like me — both shocked and yet cynically unsurprised, then you won’t be at all startled by this new HBO Documentary film. Depressed, maybe, but hardly startled. Premiering tomorrow, Tuesday, September 25, at 8pm Eastern and airing throughout October (and coming to DVD next month), this is a sobering look today, a half century on, at the infamous Little Rock, Arkansas, high school where, 50 years ago, the National Guard had to be called in so that nine black students could enter the all-white school and attend classes. Filmmakers and Little Rock natives Brent and Craig Renaud explore the de facto segregation that still divides the school, where remedial classes are full of black students who can’t read and AP college-prep courses are dominated by whites, despite the fact that whites make up a minority of the overall student population. While some people, both black and white, talk of outright racism, the Renauds find far more subtle and insidious forces at work that can’t quite be pinned down to actual bigotry on anyone’s part. White students and parents see how much things have changed and genuinely praise the “diversity” of the school. Black students, parents, teachers, and community leaders see how much is still left to be done, and despair at how to change both black and white cultures to get there. It’s downright alarming, the disconnect between honest, right-minded people portrayed here who simply cannot conceive of how The Other lives — white students prepare for the Ivy League; black students juggle teenage parenthood and the challenge not to drop out. And it’s also an excellent step in the direction toward starting to figure out how to fix things so that everyone truly has access to the same opportunities.

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