'Speed': Life After Brown, With Too Much Gray
By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C05
It is doubtful that any event was more important to social change in America in the 20th century than the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in the nation's public schools.
However tardy it was in implementation, whatever steps both southern -- and not a few northern -- communities took to frustrate its intent, Brown v. Board of Education put the federal government at long last on record against racial barriers in schools.
Thus, as we near the 50th anniversary of that moment in American jurisprudence, what could be more worthy of thoughtful reexamination in a documentary film?
Sadly, "With All Deliberate Speed," directed by Peter Gilbert (the producer of "Hoop Dreams") and produced by the Discovery Channel, misses almost every opportunity to break new ground on the issue. Instead, the film largely chooses to round up the usual suspects in the civil rights debate.
Perhaps a few people still don't know that segregation was an evil system. Perhaps we need shots of lynchings, "white" and "colored" restroom signs and black people picking cotton. Perhaps we need all the other racial stereotypes this documentary does its best to reinforce. But do we really need to see a black schoolteacher of today asking her black students to think about "why white people don't want to go to school with you" and suggest racism as the only possible answer?
Surely by now we have learned that this sort of de facto segregation is a complicated thing. Although racism hasn't vanished, there are other reasons -- including poor test scores, discipline problems and crime -- why whites and middle-class blacks, too, have turned away from poor inner-city schools. Isn't that worthy of even a little discussion?
Though chaotic organization is one of the film's problems, "With All Deliberate Speed" attempts to focus primarily on Prince Edward County, Va., and Clarendon County, S.C., two of the five localities in the nation where black parents quietly but firmly decided about 1950 that it was worth a court fight to ensure that their children got public school facilities equal to those afforded white children. The film quite rightly pays tribute to the courage of those parents and their long court battles, which eventually came together in the Brown case, though it gives little sense of how truly isolated from the mainstream of media attention such efforts were at the time.
Fifty years after Brown, those schools are still overwhelmingly black. So, the film reminds us, are the public schools of the nation's capital. But wait a minute.
Isn't the film's major thesis that school integration moved too slowly to assure blacks educational equity? Yet, weren't schools integrated speedily after Brown in the District of Columbia? Isn't that different from what happened in Virginia and South Carolina, where officials defied the decision for years? How have those differences shaped the schools in each locality today? We're never told.
Unhappily, "With All Deliberate Speed" repeatedly omits or tangles such issues rather than clarifies them, and few viewers are likely to learn much from the film about what the momentous court decision half a century ago was really all about, or how to meaningfully address the inequities that still plague our public schools.
With All Deliberate Speed (103 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains images of lynching and discussions of racial violence.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company