In September 1957, Central High School in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, became a focal point in the turbulent desegregation movement. Gov. Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to integrate the all-white school and sent members of the National Guard, under the pretense of student “protection,” to prevent African-American teenagers from stepping onto campus. A national standoff ensued, and it ended on Sept. 25, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower had soldiers from the 101st Airborne escort nine African-American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, to class. In Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, documentary filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud take a critical look at how far race relations have progressed at Central since then.
Stripped to its essence, filmmaking is but a man (or woman) with a camera trained on a subject. The Renaud brothers adhere to this simple point-and-shoot methodology, unobtrusively capturing the scene’s realism — no staged shots and no pre-lit sitdowns. “We know our films aren’t always going to have beautiful cinematography,” says Brent. “We flow with whatever the environment presents.” The cinéma vérité label often is misapplied in the film industry, but on the Renauds the tag sticks, reinforcing the notion that content is king.
The content in the brothers’ documentaries has garnered them critical praise. Based in New York, they were mentored by Emmy-winning filmmaker Jon Alpert (Baghdad ER, Lock-Up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island, American Undercover series) before striking out on their own in 2001 on The Season, an ESPN series documenting college-football rivalries. They then spent 18 months trailing two drug-addicted couples on the streets of New York City to show the lengths someone will go to fuel a crack habit. Airing on HBO in 2005, Dope Sick Love was nominated for an Emmy and has since been adopted by social workers and rehabilitation centers as an educational tool.
Off to War, a 10-part series that aired in 2005 on Discovery Times (it also aired on the Discover Channel as a one-hour documentary), followed a unit of the Arkansas National Guard throughout its entire deployment in Iraq, as well as the families they left behind. Off to War won the International Documentary Association award for Best Series and the Overseas Press Club Carl Spielvogel Award for International Reporting. (Ted Koppel, Brian Ross and Lou Dobbs are some of the previous winners of the latter.) The brothers were also nominated for best documentary direction by the Directors Guild of America. Last year the Renauds followed a few war veterans during their campaigns for national office in Taking the Hill.
With the 50th anniversary of the Central High crisis approaching, filmmakers and production companies were beating down the school’s front door, but the Renauds had the inside track: they grew up in Arkansas, and Craig was a Central graduate. Craig had also known the school’s principal, Nancy Rousseau, for many years. The brothers were soon granted exclusive, complete access to the school for an entire year.
“We always wanted to do something about Central — it’s such a fascinating school,” Craig says. “I think it was important for the school to have someone that knows its history as well as the present-day situation [make the film]. Fifteen years have passed since I was in school there, so we had to be cautious about walking in and assuming to know what it was like. Things change. It was good to be an insider in terms of trust and access, but we also had to take a step back to try to be as objective as we could.”
Central High has the distinction of being the only U.S. high school that is also a National Historic Site, complete with a visitor’s center and full-time park ranger, who happens to be the daughter of Minnie Jean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine. The documentary opens with Minnie Jean surveying the campus and struggling to find the words to describe the lack of progress in eliminating the racial divide. “The idea was to have Central and the 50th anniversary as the anchor,” notes Brent, “but it turned into a film about the community dealing with issues of race and the discussion the school has spurred.”
Central really functions as two schools in one. On one hand, the school’s advanced-placement (AP) track makes it one of the top 20 high schools in the nation in 2006, according to Newsweek. On the other, the regular and remedial tracks mark it as a poor performer. And a distinct racial segregation separates the two. Suburban white kids from affluent families drive to their AP classes and see the school as an opportunity to experience “diversity.” African-American students are bused in from the surrounding neighborhood, one where the predominant window treatment is the boarded-up look. “Most of the time, when the African-American kids get to high school they are already so far behind that they can’t compete at the AP level,” says Brent. “That’s the frustration the principal deals with every day.”
Little Rock Central is the first project the Renauds have shot in high-definition (HD) video, a choice made to facilitate an HD delivery to HBO. The duo used Sony’s HVR-Z1U with a Sennheiser ME66 microphone onboard. Subjects were miked individually with Lectrosonics wireless mikes.
“High-school kids are so used to these handheld camcorders that it really helps [establish] an intimate feel with the subjects,” Craig points out. Brent adds, “It’s about being so close you’re almost seeing things from the subject’s point of view. We try to disappear, to make it seem as though [the viewer] is the character and experiences things from that point of view; we want to remove as many barriers as possible. There is no crew. We do all of our own shooting and sound, and rarely will we ask questions — just something simple like ‘Where are we going?’ to spur them to start talking. What’s essential is the wireless mike, because it allows the camera to drift to see the surroundings while they continue to talk.”
The Renauds avoid the usual filmmaking accoutrements, such as tripods and lighting instruments. “Introducing those changes the environment,” Craig says. “You can tell in these classes that they’re forgetting about our presence.” Adds Brent, “We’ve spent a lot of time becoming as good as we can under these types of circumstances without trying to manipulate the environment.”
Every take — about 200 hundred hours total — was digitized in standard definition for the offline, cut together using Avid Xpress Pro on laptops. After being pieced together like a puzzle, the final cut was onlined in HD. “We don’t add any voice-over in editing, and you won’t hear music in the body of the show,” Brent says. “We don’t want to use music to elicit a desired response or an emotion from the viewer; we would rather let the characters and the story do that organically. It pushes us never to get complacent or take shortcuts.”
In telling the story without those aids, the Renauds make effective use of scene juxtaposition. For example, sitting in her expansive house by her children, who attend Central’s AP courses, a white mother talks up the benefits of attending the school for its diversity and academic reputation, and of actively participating in her children’s education. The film then cuts to her at a PTA meeting in which the lone African-American mother sits isolated. This demonstrates the core of the community’s problem: people are either out of touch or avoiding the topic of race altogether, or some combination thereof.
Another sequence shows one of the few African-American students who attend AP classes. Though she struggles with the coursework, she realizes that track will yield the best opportunity to go to college, but every day she goes home to a house with no heat and no running water.
The documentary closes with Minnie Jean Brown standing before a class, again at a loss for words about what she is seeing: white students seated on the left, African–American students on the right — progress, but not quite.
Little Rock Central will air on HBO on Sept. 25.