The tale of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges’ barrier-breaking integration of a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 is known worldwide, in no small part because of the Disney film that chronicled her effort.
Now the story of how the film got challenged at a Pinellas County elementary school has become almost equally well known. After a parent complained that the “Ruby Bridges” movie teaches racism, word traveled the globe at internet speed, generating news reports in England and social media criticism from the likes of Martin Luther King III.
Two people who took particular notice from their homes far from Florida were the film’s director, Euzhan Palcy, and its screenwriter, Toni Ann Johnson. Both chided the challenge to the movie on their social media pages, but neither sounded too surprised that it happened in today’s politically divisive environment that has landed U.S. schools at the heart of a culture war.
“This is the right wing political agenda doing its best to minimize or eliminate perspectives that are not Eurocentric,” Johnson told the Times in an email interview. “I think it’s sad that it’s happening in our country.”
Johnson, a 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award winner, and Palcy, the first Black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film, each said they found the challenge to their 1998 film ridiculous.
“The people who are saying that, they didn’t ever watch the movie to the end,” Palcy said in a telephone interview from her home in France. “I don’t see how that would promote hate.... If you deny history and hide things, how do you get the younger generation to understand and know what is wrong?”
She noted how, at the end of the film, the little boy who told Ruby his mother said not to play with her because she was Black wound up inviting her to play on the merry go round together. It provided a message that just as children can be taught to hate, they can learn to love, Palcy said.
And with teachers leading them through a lesson about the movie, she said, children will see past the racial slurs and messages of hate to understand acceptance.
“People need to stop insulting kids’ intelligence. They have a brain,” Palcy said. “Children are sometimes faster and understand things so quickly. I truly believe that it’s the job of the teacher to look at the movie, explain what is going on, and talk to the kids. Was that the right thing to do? What is the answer?”
Johnson agreed, saying the usual response she hears from children about the movie is the opposite of teaching white children to hate Black children, as the complaint alleged.
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“The film elicits empathy for Ruby regardless of what color the child who watches the film is.” Johnson said.
She explained that she used racial slurs and hateful language in the script because “that’s what the research presented. They happened.”
“The crowd of mostly adults shouted hateful slurs at Ruby. The slurs included the N-word, which I was asked to remove from the first hour of the film because it aired at 7 PM on the ‘Wonderful World of Disney,’” Johnson said.
At the same time, Johnson added, “I did aim to help the viewer see Ruby and her family as fully dimensional human beings. And I did hope that people watching the film would have affection for her and have compassionate horror when they witnessed what she had to endure.”
Both women found it an odd concept to consider pulling the film out of elementary schools.
“So a little girl, she was 6 years old, and that little girl at that age she was able to go through that terrible situation … She was so strong,” Palcy said. “I don’t know why people say that children who are older than her cannot be just looking at that.”
Some families don’t have the opportunity to avoid such language just by taking away school materials, Johnson said.
“I was one of the only Black kids in my elementary, junior high, and high school. This was in the sixties and seventies in Monroe, NY, not the Jim Crow south, and I was called the N-word by kids and adults,” she wrote. “It was the culture of the country to hurl racially abusive language at Black people. And I had to read plenty of stories that marginalized or dehumanized people of color.”
“My parents only once stepped in and said that I was not going to participate in a lesson on the ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’” Johnson continued. “My mother never suggested that the book be completely removed from the school. She didn’t have that privilege. That (Gov. Ron) DeSantis’s parental rights law gives one parent that much power is sad thing for our country.”
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