“Hoop Dreams” helmer Peter Gilbert revisits the people and places involved in “Brown vs. Board of Education,” the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled segregation unconstitutional, to see how much has changed in the intervening half-century. Though docu chronicles the contributions of those who made it into the history books, much footage concerns lesser-known folk, many of them barely in their teens at the time, whose courage altered the tide of human events. Skedded for May 14 limited theatrical release in advance of the decision’s May 17 50th anniversary, sprawling, ambitious educational pic will later air on Discovery Channel.
In choosing to cover the smaller picture of what has been little publicized, alongside the larger picture of what is generally known, pic loses momentum but gains depth, sacrificing box office for educational usefulness. The presence of young celebs, like Alicia Keys and Larenz Tate, reading aloud the still-powerful words of now-deceased activists, for instance, is hardly designed to send people scurrying to the multiplexes, though it may starcoat the pedagogical pill for the TV and schoolroom auds for whom the docu seems designed.
Brown vs. Board of Education was, in fact, an amalgam of five civil rights cases, some of which the docu explores in detail. Particularly striking is the story of Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old who, well before there was a recognizable civil rights movement, convinced her classmates to go on strike to demand decent schools.
The now-septuagenarian participants in the strike return to the place where, years before, many were forced to leave in the violent aftermath of Brown, which included a five-year-long closing of county schools. They have shown up for a new court proceeding in which, basically, they are asking for the same thing — decent schools.
Gilbert shows many of the original participants, or members of their families, interacting with present-day schoolkids, some of whom have already taken up the torch, while others strain to find relevance. The pristine HD imagery and laid-back feel of the modern sequences provide a sharp contrast with the immediacy of overexposed black-and-white television and newsreel footage of children in the ’50s being asked what they thought of impending integration.
Pic poses the question of whether the titular phrase “with all deliberate speed,” which allowed states to take as many as 20 years to enforce integration, was responsible for the explosive aftermath of the Brown decision.
Oddly, there is something in Gilbert’s thorough but desultory presentation which almost defines “deliberate speed” — moving back and forth in time, docu seems to mimic the excruciatingly slow-moving historical process of integration. Ultimately, however, the events themselves, captured in vital newsreel footage of the period, speak volumes, as perhaps does their unfinished legacy.