The juxtaposition between Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and 2007 is startling in some ways and in others, slightly heartbreaking. Forever linked with the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the scene of painful, necessary steps forward when, in September of 1957, nine black students began taking classes at the school, under the watchful eyes of the 101st Airborne Division, as the governor of Arkansas had attempted to use the National Guard to prevent integration from happening. It's a raw, electrifying moment in the national history that carries with it some deep, still festering wounds, scars that have not healed some five decades later.
Examining the fissure that, in many ways, hasn't disappeared at all is the thrust of Brent and Craig Renaud's fascinating and troubling documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, a remarkably even-handed look at the span of years since the Southern school was first integrated. Even if it does threaten to tip over into self-righteousness -- the filmmakers seem to disdain the wealthy white families, while painting the often-struggling black families as victims of the socio-economic system -- the 70-minute film does strive to present both sides, positive and negative, of the realities of race in America.
In speaking with students, faculty and family members, as well as those in the community, a portrait of a town riven by racial tensions emerges fairly quickly. Some of the vintage newsreel footage is striking in its immediacy; watching students bravely endure humiliating taunts and threats of physical violence just to attend high school is sobering and indicative of just how backwards the Jim Crow South could be. At the same time, the filmmakers' panning around an Advanced Placement class, revealing only a handful of black students among the white students, illustrates a new, more subtle form of racism permeating the classrooms and hallways of the groundbreaking institution. The notion of having come this far and still having so very far to go is one espoused frequently during the film, by both blacks and whites.
Much of the film's power stems from its intimate, unblinking nature (whether it be an upwardly mobile stay-at-home mom or a teenaged student with a child to support), which pulls you in close to an issue that can easily be sketched with facts and figures -- indeed, the faculty and staff of the school are only too happy to point out its standing nationally and locally -- but is dramatically underscored by images of youths walking past crack houses on one side of town and driving home luxe SUVs on the other. In many ways, little has changed since the "Little Rock Nine" ascended those stairs and stepped into the history books more than 50 years ago, but in a few small ways, America has tentatively moved forward, aching to forget its ugly past but content to let small reminders of it exist every day.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid throughout, with no discernible flaws in the newly filmed footage and plenty of scratches, flicker and other print damage in the archival footage. On balance, it's a very good visual representation of a wide range of material and the film never looks rougher than it should.
Driven by interview segments, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later needs the bare minimum of a Dolby 2.0 stereo track, which the disc includes. Everything is clean, clear and suffers from no glaring defects -- a perfunctory aural experience, but one that accomplishes what it needs to. There are no optional subtitles.
Criminally, there's not a shred of supplementary material to be found. An engaging, historically significant doc such as this should have something, but the disc producers saw fit to include nothing.
In many ways, little has changed since the "Little Rock Nine" ascended the stairs of Arkansas' Little Rock Central High School and stepped into the history books more than 50 years ago, but in a few small ways, America has tentatively moved forward, aching to forget its ugly past but content to let small reminders of it exist every day. Brent and Craig Renaud's fascinating and troubling documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later is a remarkably even-handed look at the span of years since the Southern school was first integrated. Recommended.