New Documentary Marks 50th Anniversary

Media 05.4.04

This Film depicts the deeply blemished racial divide of the nation’s schools.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal,” ending legal apartheid in education in America. Fifty years later, the true promise of Brown has yet to be fulfilled.

Peabody and Emmy-winning director Stanley Nelson teams explores today’s troubled educational landscape and the historical legacy of Brown v. Board of Education in “Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise”. Narrated by veteran television and film actor Joe Morton, the hour-long documentary will premiere on PBS stations May 12th at 10 pm ET (check local listings) – five days before the 50th anniversary of the decision.

“Beyond Brown” poignantly blends human stories of contemporary educational debates with perspectives of educators and opinion leaders to examine the unfulfilled promises of Brown. The film, segmented in five vignette treatments, reaches past a retrospective, historical review and past the dichotomy of black and white to offer one of the most comprehensive explorations of the Brown ruling yet recorded on film.

Brown v. Board of Education was a watershed moment in American history, striking down the Jim Crow laws that mandated separate but equal education. Among the most significant Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, Brown signaled the end of legal apartheid in education and transformed the United States politically, economically and socially. Yet, 50 years later, the true equality that the supporters of Brown envisioned remains as elusive as the “all deliberate speed” that the Court decreed for implementation.

“Beyond Brown” begins with a look back at the genesis of the historic lawsuit, composed of five separate cases that worked their way up to the High Court in the early 1950s. Parents, students and lawyers retell the story of the grassroots student strike in Prince Edward County, Virginia that launched one of the cases. The film then moves forward with segments on ability tracking in Los Angeles, school funding in New York City, a voluntary busing program in the Boston Area and high stakes testing in Orlando, Florida. Each story weaves a fabric that reveals the still deeply blemished racial divide of our nation’s public schools.

Student tracking is probed in “Beyond Brown” with a look at North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, which has evolved into two schools – separate and unequal under – one roof. Asians and Whites follow the “talented and gifted” college track while Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionately populate vocational education, home economics and programs that teach them to “work with their hands.” One educator observes that 50 years ago, the Supreme Court could not have predicted America’s resistance to integration and how institutions would devise ways to resegregate, even within a school building.

Current research shows that school districts predominated by white students generally receive more state and federal funding, while minority populated school districts are left to falter. State money, allocated based on complicated formulas including the tax base of local jurisdictions, is not equitably distributed. The effects of such financial inequities on students and families in New York City, which are increasingly minority, are also addressed in “Beyond Brown”. In New York City approximately $11,000 is spent per pupil, compared to $20,000 per pupil in neighboring suburban school districts.

For nearly three decades, Boston’s METCO program served as a national model for integration through voluntary busing, offering better opportunities to students from the inner-city. Boston-area officials and suburban community leaders considered abandoning the system because of financial constraints. “Beyond Brown” captures the community’s struggle with this decision and examines how the end to busing – forced or voluntary – leaves many minority students in metropolitan areas locked out of the best schools. Ultimately the referendum to retain the METCO program prevails during filming for the documentary which captures the gulf in perspectives among white suburban residents and African American students and educators.

“Beyond Brown” also depicts one of today’s most controversial trends – high stakes testing. A dominant feature of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, achievement testing determines whether students pass or are retained at grade. In deeply moving interviews from Orlando, Florida, the film probes how high stakes exams have impacted on a B student, this school year facing the possibility of repeating third grade for the third time, and an honors high school senior whose future at a four-year college has been derailed.

“Beyond Brown” s punctuated with short vignettes from civil rights leaders and other notables, and two of the original Brown attorneys, the Honorable Robert Carter and Oliver Hill also share their experiences.

Executive Producer Stanley Nelson is joined by a talented team including Marcia A. Smith, co-executive producer; Lulie Haddad, supervising producer/director; Cyndee Readdean, producer/director; John J. Valadez producer/director; and Carol Bash, coordinating producer.

“When we were approached late last year about producing a documentary on Brown to mark this landmark legal decision, it was an easy decision to take on the project,” remarked Nelson. “Our hope is that it can be utilized by social justice advocates and educators, and serve as a springboard for discussion, education and action.”

Firelight Media is an award-winning non profit production company that is dedicated to telling stories of people and issues underrepresented in mainstream media. Executive Producer Stanley Nelson is a 2002 MacArthur “genius” Fellow. He is a recipient this month of the prestigious 45th Annual CINE Golden Eagle Leadership Award, and the first Primetime Emmy for Directing Nonfiction Programming for the PBS documentary the “Murder of Emmett Till.” Nelson will also receive a Peabody Award for “Emmett Till,” ironically presented on May 17th – the Brown anniversary.

Documenting issues of race, equality and transformative historical moments has distinguished PBS as a national resource. Firelight Media has teamed with PBS on numerous widely acclaimed documentaries on the Black experience including “A Place of Our Own” (2004), the “Murder of Emmett Till” (2003); “Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind” (2001); and “Black Press: Soldiers without Swords” (1999).

PBS and Firelight Media will host a premier screening of “Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise” in partnership with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund May 5th in Washington, D.C. Additional screenings are being planned by Firelight Media in New York and Los Angeles.

Interviews with Stanley Nelson, preview tapes and information kits may be secured upon request. Please contact Erica Clark at (202) 833-9771.