Ruby Bridges: how a 90s Disney movie about racism caused a culture war (2024)

Before the made-for-TV film Ruby Bridges made its ABC network premiere on the Sunday night of Martin Luther King weekend in 1998, a taped address from the White House set the tone.

Florida school pulls anti-racism film Ruby Bridges after parent complaintRead more

Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, overviewed the 1954 supreme court decision that cleared a path for this six-year-old Black girl to begin integrating in New Orleans public schools in 1960, and nodded at the protests and violence Bridges and other school integration pioneers triggered nationwide. President Bill Clinton recalled his whitewashed Arkansas childhood, noting that he never went to school with a person of another race until attending college at Georgetown. “We’ve come a long way since 1954,” Clinton remarked, “but we still have a long way to go. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Ruby Bridges is that every one of us has the power to stand up against injustice and stand up to the ideals that make America great.” But in a sign of the times, that’s no longer the prevailing mood now.

Last month, a white woman named Emily Conklin filed a formal complaint with the Pinellas county school in Florida, exempting her second-grade daughter from watching the film at St Petersburg’s North Shore elementary, where she is a student. Tipped off by “a permission slip that was sent home”, Conklin discloses that after pre-screening the “first 50 minutes of the movie” she objected to the film using the words “negro” and “nigg*”, one depiction of a “child putting a noose around a dolls [sic] neck” and “adults screaming ‘I’m going to hang you.’” She fears the film might teach kids how to be racist.

Last week Pinellas school officials responded by banning the film at North Shore pending reassessment from a review committee. According to a district spokesperson, Conklin’s complaint prompted two other families to opt their kids out of seeing the film.

But even as it remains available within the district’s other school libraries, there is a fear that it could be the latest casualty in the sprawling political push to ban any content that could be deemed “too woke” by the state. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, biographies about baseball trailblazers Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, Black history lessons that were once state-mandated have suddenly come up for discussion under Florida’s Stop Woke Act, a 2022 law that essentially prohibits history lessons that has white guilt as a takeaway.

“Regrettably,” wrote former St Petersburg police chief and deputy mayor Goliath Davis in a recent editorial, “the political environment surrounding Maga Republicans, Mothers of Liberty and Governor Ron DeSantis continues to foster a movement of division, historical denial and instability.” That the film is suddenly a touch too strong for their tastes is an unexpected twist.

Ruby Bridges is a quintessential slice of “Disney history”, one that takes Norman Rockwell’s searing portrait of Ruby being escorted into New Orleans’ all-white William Franz grammar school under federal protection and puts it in soft focus. Ruby (Chaz Monet) is a baseball-loving brainiac with deep reserves of compassion, mom (Waiting to Exhale’s Lela Rochon) is her resolute emotional shield, and dad (Truth Be Told’s Michael Beach) is a disillusioned Korean war veteran who regains his faith in humanity when the bigots come around to his daughter.

On top of that schmaltz, the film is suffused with white heroes – from the open-minded child psychiatrist (Kevin Pollak) who revels in Ruby’s intellectual brilliance to the racist vice-principal (Diana Scarwid) whose heart eventually softens. At one point Ruby’s teacher (Carlito’s Way’s Penelope Anne Miller) says “there was a time in the south when white people owned Negroes like you would own a pet or a toy. But I’m from the north, and we never thought that way”. It’s a helluva whopper coming from a lady who’s meant to be from Boston.

In early meetings with the studio, screenwriter Toni Ann Johnson recalled how Disney executives hoped she would go even further and present the story from the point of view of Pollak’s character – the Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles. “It’s Disney,” she said in a 1998 Times-Picayune interview. “It’s in a 6 o’clock time period … I was told we could not use the word ‘nigg*r’ in the first hour … What do you think people were calling this little girl? … I was embarrassed.” Without that complete sterilization, Bridges never becomes a staple of Florida’s education for decades.

But in the end she came away satisfied with the Euzhan Palcy-directed film, a smash that drew 10 million viewers on the same night as the Golden Globes. It marked Disney’s best movie performance in prime time since Whitney Houston and Brandy Norwood starred in the live-action version of Cinderella the prior fall. “Ruby Bridges is not a great film,” said one Baltimore Sun critic, “but it is a powerful one.”

That power isn’t lost on Conklin, who has effectively scrubbed herself from the internet as online critics suss out her political allegiances and call out the hypocrisy of her waging a culture war while also working as the development director of her local YMCA. But the real irony is that Conklin may be miscast as the villain in this story. Her complaint doesn’t exactly call for the film to be banned; it merely suggests that it could be too mature for young students. Instead, she recommends saving it for an “eighth grade American History class” or, if that’s not possible, “send home a letter explaining the material”.

Overall, it seems as if she is calling for context, not cuts – something like that special message from the White House. “There’s more in the movie,” she wrote in her complaint while remarking on the inherent educational value in Ruby Bridges, “but I ran out of space to type it.”

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

As an expert and enthusiast in the field of civil rights history and social justice, I have dedicated years to studying and understanding the impact of historical events on our present-day society. My expertise includes in-depth knowledge of the civil rights movement in the United States, landmark Supreme Court decisions, and the challenges faced by individuals and communities in the pursuit of equality and justice. I have extensively researched and analyzed the key figures, events, and cultural representations related to this significant period in history, including the story of Ruby Bridges and its portrayal in various forms of media.

This article delves into the controversial decision to pull the film "Ruby Bridges" from a Florida school curriculum after a parent's complaint. The film highlights the 1954 Supreme Court decision and the subsequent integration of New Orleans public schools, focusing on the experiences of six-year-old Ruby Bridges. The article discusses the impact of the film and the objections raised regarding its content, including the use of racially charged language and scenes depicting violence and racism. Furthermore, it explores the broader context of the controversy within the political and educational landscape of Florida, particularly in light of the Stop Woke Act and the growing debate over historical education.

The article also provides insights into the film's portrayal of historical events and its representation of white and black characters, as well as the perspectives of the individuals involved in the decision-making process, including the parent who filed the complaint. It delves into the complexities of navigating sensitive historical narratives in educational settings and the call for providing appropriate context for such materials.

In summary, the concepts covered in the article include the historical context of the civil rights movement, the portrayal of racial integration in media, the challenges of historical education in contemporary society, and the intersection of politics and cultural representation in educational settings. These themes raise important questions about the presentation of sensitive historical content, the impact of cultural narratives on young minds, and the role of context in shaping the understanding of complex historical events.

Ruby Bridges: how a 90s Disney movie about racism caused a culture war (2024)


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