How long ago was 1957? Not that long ago, as long-agos go. There are young adults running about today -- some of them married, and with families -- who weren't even alive when, under the watchful eye of the 101st Airborne Division and only after the intervention of the president of the United States, integration came to Little Rock, Ark.
The story is told tonight in a compelling CBS movie, "Crisis at Central High" -- at 8:30 on Channel 9 -- from the viewpoint of one teacher and school administrator, Elizabeth Huckaby. She is portrayed not as a crusader for civil rights, which she was not, but as a woman trying to do her job and obey the law in the midst of a social hurricane.
Joanne Woodward plays (Huckaby, looking absolutely like a high school teacher (her arms and legs seem to have gotten academically spindly for the part). She conveys a sense of fairness and temperance and those other qualities that see level-headed people through times of madness, and help them maintain some pride in being human even when being human seems, considering the viciousness of which people are capable, a questionable distinction.
The script, by the accomplished issue-grappling team of Richard Levinson and William Link ("The Execution of Pvt. Slovik"), and the elegantly straightforward direction by Lamont Johnson, avoid preachiness and fake irony. The imagery is vital and potent enough without fake irony. The imagery is vital and potent enough without any interpretive acrobatics: prim and proper Miss Huckaby riding to school in a military jeep, or a racist mob storming past the school while the American flag flies over their heads, in more ways than one.
"Crisis" is not technically a docudrama. A disclaimer warns that "certain characters and events have been created in the interest of dramatic continuity." And in prefatory voiceover, Woodward as Huckaby says "It's not the story of why things happened the way they did," only a reminder that they did happen; that, following the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, it was ordered that nine black students be intergrated into Little Rock's all-white Central High.
Gov. Orval Faubus, the six-term demagogue who defied the federal courts, is never depicted, only discussed. The drama stays with Huckaby and her own personal efforts to see sanity prevail, or at least get a fighting chance. The film doesn't lionize her; it's not one of those courageous-loner sagas TV networks love so much. It's finer than that, and the writers have the good sense to see this changing-of-the-eras as more than a simplistic tussle between heroes and villains.
The film opens with the school under siege by National Guardsman acting on the governor's orders. Huckaby is allowed past the blockade when a guardsman tells her, "Sure ma'am, you go right through; we're just stoppin' the coloreds."
Violence is not dwelled upon, but it would have been dishonest to ignore it. Perhaps the most poignant scene involves a black girl in dark glasses who comes to the school alone because her family doesn't have a telephone, and so she doesn't know she is supposed to arrive with the other black students in a group. She is surrounded by a snarling mob and sent home. b
But when, later, the other students finally make it inside the building, they are greeted by Huckaby, who manages a wonderfully normal "Nice to have you with us." Woodward turns the character into a celebration of simple, unglamorous, grassroots right-headedness. There isn't much as a false blink to this performance, nor to those of Charles Durning as the principal or Calvin Levels as one of the black students, Ernest Green.
The situation depicted in "Crisis" will probably look incredible to children who watch the movie with their parents now, not that we've passed into an era of perfect harmony and understanding, of course.But the hysteria, the blindness of hatred, the talk of "race-mixin' and communism," the removal of the painted words "Niggers go home" from a sidewalk, the mob's chants of "2-4-6-8, we don't want to integrate" -- to confront these images again is to be reminded how recent 1957 really is.
As testimony to the fact that times do change, the producers were able to use the actual exterior of Central High School in many scenes for the film (with most interiors filmed in Dallas). At the close of the program, Woodward says that "Central High is now over 50 percent black" and takes note of the fact that the first black student to graduate there, Ernest G. Green, went on to become an assistant secretary of labor for employment and training in the Carter administration.