At recent screenings of BEYOND BROWN in Washington DC and New York,
Executive Producers Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith answered questions
The 50th anniversary of Brown is being observed with myriad
activities nationwide. What makes BEYOND BROWN different?
SN: Brown v. Board of Education is arguably one of
the most important Supreme Court cases of the 20th Century. The
historic ruling signaled the end of legal apartheid and transformed
America politically, economically and socially. Yet, 50 years later,
the true equality envisioned by supporters of Brown is still
elusive. BEYOND BROWN takes the conversation on Brown
to another level by exploring this unfulfilled and in some cases
the broken promise with compelling real-life stories and issues.
We go beyond a retrospective look at the barriers that were broken
and survey the education landscape of today, which is rife with
What contemporary issues explored in the film speak to the unfulfilled
MS: Student tracking, school financing, busing and high stakes
testing — all hotly contested, national education issues —
are explored. We probe the trend of student tracking with a look
at North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, which is basically
two schools under one roof — one for Asians and Whites and
one for Latinos and African-Americans, with the latter being disproportionately
tracked into remedial level classes. With financing public schools,
research shows that school districts predominated by white students
generally receive more funding, while minority populated school
districts are left to falter. The effects of such racial disparities
on students and families in New York City, which has over time become
increasingly minority, will be discussed. A segment on Boston's
voluntary busing system, METCO, will examine how the end of busing
leaves many minority students in metropolitan areas locked out of
the area's best schools. The documentary will end with a look at
one of the most far-reaching education trends today — high
stakes testing. We focus on the pass-fail testing system implemented
in Florida, which has caused tens of thousands of third graders
to be held back. This issue is part of the so-called standards movement
that is wreaking havoc among educators, students and parents. It
is also part of the underpinning of the No Child Left Behind Act
recently adopted by the President.
What inspired you to create this documentary?
SN: Fifty years is a long time — a time to celebrate
the victory of Brown but also to assess how far we have come.
We realized that the landscape is strewn with stories, reflections
and valuable lessons. Understanding the significance of Brown,
we knew this was a once in a lifetime chance to explore the impact
and influence of a decision with such far-reaching legal, social
and political impact. We thought it was our responsibility to try.
Our goal has always been to tell stories through the prism of people
and issues underrepresented in the mainstream media. We view our
work as a creative mix of art and activism and we are honored that
our peers and the public see the value in that.
Why is PBS is an appropriate network for the documentary?
MS: PBS has distinguished itself from the other major networks
by regularly offering programming that addresses issues of race,
equality and transformative historical moments. Firelight Media
documentaries on the Black experience have called PBS home for years
— with the network most recently airing A Place of Our
Own (2004), The Murder of Emmett Till (2003); Marcus
Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (2001); and Black Press:
Soldiers without Swords (1999). It was only fitting that we
return to PBS for this broadcast.
Do you envision BEYOND BROWN being used as an educational
MS: Absolutely! Well beyond the airdate, Firelight Media
will seek and be open to opportunities to provide BEYOND BROWN
and its supplemental materials for educational use. We envision
educators and social justice advocates across the nation using the
film as a springboard for discussion and action.
On a final note, it was recently announced that you will receive
a prestigious Peabody Award for your PBS/American Experience Film,
The Murder of Emmett Till. Is there any significance of this
honor to your current project?
SN: Amazingly, the day I will receive the Peabody Award at
a special ceremony is May 17th. I thought that was symbolic and
a statement that the work of Firelight Media — not just me
but my executive director Marcia Smith and all of the producers
and staff that support us — is aligned with history.