Fifty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, how complicated is it to desegregate the cafeteria at a racially diverse urban high school?
Ask the 10 students who form the centerpiece of a new documentary -- "I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education" -- and their answer will probably be: more complicated than you think.
The film, made by Peabody Award-winning directors Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, airs tonight at 9 on The N, the Noggin network's nighttime programming for teenagers (Noggin is available on digital cable and satellite TV). Primarily filmed over two weeks at the Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts -- a magnet school in a city known for its still-segregated neighborhoods -- the film follows a racially mixed group of students as they learn more about each other, and themselves, while trying to confront racial barriers in the school. What emerges is a fascinating, sometimes painful and frequently funny look at teenagers and the way they think and talk about race in 21st-century America.
Dow and Williams had no specific script in mind when they set out to make the film, and so what emerges evolved from conversations with the students. In a series of pre-interviews, the directors were stunned to discover that while virtually all the students said they had friends of varied races, not one could remember visiting the home of a friend of another race. And when asked where they chose to sit at lunchtime, they admitted they sat where they were most comfortable -- which resulted in a cafeteria where just a small handful of the tables were racially mixed.
"Clearly there was some difference 50 years later because kids feel like they have friends of different races," Williams said after a special screening of the documentary last week at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History that was attended by classes from some local high schools. "But they are choosing to self-segregate."
The 10 students chosen to be the film's focus are white, black and Latino, reflecting the general population of the school. In reaction to their initial conversations, they chose to embark on twin projects: They would pair up with a classmate of another race and trade home visits. And they would attempt, over the course of a week, to persuade their classmates to integrate the lunchroom.
And so Mike -- who lives in an all-white Polish Catholic neighborhood, describes his father as racist and admits having used racial slurs himself -- spends an exceedingly uncomfortable evening at the home of a black classmate named Steven, his awkwardness at once sad and tremendously funny. Jason, whose upper-middle-class black family has a big new house complete with a large-screen television and Jacuzzi, is shocked to discover that his geeky white classmate James is far from rich, as he had just automatically assumed.
In the cafeteria, the 10 students meet a great deal of initial resistance from their classmates, who don't see any reason to change the way they live. At one point, the school principal remarks that their frustrations only mirror what "every mayor, every city council member" has had to confront in the decades since Brown.
The project was the brainchild of executive producer Tonya Lewis Lee, who wanted to find a way to make the Brown decision more relevant to the daily lives of teenagers.
"The thing about these kids in this film," Lewis Lee says, "is that I was impressed by their candor, and I appreciated their honesty."
That candor includes a passage in which Cory, another white student, talks about having used the "N-word" -- and he actually says it -- at school, and how it was received, and what he learned from that experience. It also results in a particularly compelling scene in which a black student, Daelyn, confronts a white student, Joe (who declined to participate as a principal in the project), and accuses him of "acting black" because of the way he talks and dresses. Joe, in response, accuses Daelyn of trying to define him based on his clothing and musical choices. "I am being myself, and I'm white," he says. "That's not how I define me." His response drew loud cheers of approval from the Smithsonian audience, a mixed-race group of students who were clearly engrossed by the film.
"I really, really liked that scene," Dow said, "because in a very clear, rational way Joe puts into words what everyone feels: 'Don't define me. Let me define myself.' "