Integration icon brought to 'life' Preview: This time Disney and the president pull strings of an emotional tug of war.

January 17, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It isn't every made-for-TV movie that rates an introduction by the president of the United States. But that's what "The Wonderful World of Disney's" "Ruby Bridges" gets tomorrow night on ABC.

The Disney film about the 6-year-old African-American girl who helped integrate New Orleans' schools in 1960 is introduced by President Clinton and Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Co., from the Cabinet Room of the White House.

Eisner explains the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education on school desegregation, while the president recalls going to all-white schools in Arkansas.

"We've come a long way since 1954, but we've got a long way to go," Clinton concludes. "Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Ruby Bridges is that every one of us has the power to stand against injustice and to stand up for the ideals that make America great."

As much as it might be hard to argue with that message, the combination of Disney and the White House telling an audience of 20 million viewers what message to get from a film should give us all pause. When Hollywood and Washington are this cozy, the potential for prime-time propaganda is tremendous.

"Ruby Bridges" is not a great film, but it is a powerful one.

The 6-year-old at the center of it became an icon of civil rights when portrayed by Norman Rockwell in "The Problem We All Live With." Rockwell's picture shows her all spiffy in a white dress, bobby socks, sneakers and ribbon in her hair, walking between four U.S. marshals in front of a wall emblazoned with the "n" word.

Rockwell was depicting what news cameras at the time captured: a mob of angry whites greeting the little girl each day at school. The Rockwell sensibility suffuses this Disney production, which makes for its two greatest failings.

First, even though Ruby's mom refers to their neighborhood as a poor one on several occasions, it looks as lovely as almost any street in a Disney theme park.

Second, the filmmakers are so taken with Rockwell artistically that the first half of the film is little more than one imitation-Rockwell tableau after another: Ruby walking up the steps of the school, Ruby passing through the mob, Ruby on her knees praying.

Tableaus do not a narrative make. But they can evoke emotion and, once the film gets going, it takes that emotion and runs with it.

Besides Rockwell, the other source for this "fact-based dramatization" (to use Disney's own language) is the writing of Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles.

Coles and his wife were in New Orleans in 1960 and happened upon Ruby's school just as she arrived and the mob broke into its frenzy. Coles says that moment shaped his career, which has come to deal primarily with the inner life of children.

The film starts to produce some sparks in scenes between Coles (Kevin Pollak) and Ruby (Chaz Harbin) as well as in those between Ruby's white teacher from the north, Barbara Henry (Penelope Ann Miller) and Ruby. The real fire comes from an unlikely place: a subplot about the toll Ruby's move to the white school is taking on her father, Abon (Michael Beach), a mechanic.

Abon Bridges' story is the triumph of Toni Ann Johnson's script. He loses his job at a bakery because of the publicity surrounding Ruby, and his working-class sensibility comes into sharp contrast with the middle-class mores of the college-educated black representatives from the NAACP who seem to have a hard time thinking of him as a person.

I would sing the praises of "Ruby Bridges" for the rest of the season if for no other reason than its being one of the only programs you'll see on network television that doesn't treat black life as if it is monolithic.

In the end, "Ruby Bridges" isn't in a league with Disney's "Cinderella" last fall. There are too many moments when complicated matters of American history are over-simplified for the sake of good-guy/bad-guy narrative.

When Ruby asks her teacher why the people outside the school hate her, Mrs. Henry asks her if she knows what slavery is. When Ruby says no, the teacher 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."

"Ruby Bridges" is provocative television worth watching with your children. But don't let the presidents and CEOs at the start and the teachers in the middle of the film tell you what to think.

'Ruby Bridges'

What: TV movie about desegregation pioneer on "The Wonderful World of Disney"

When: 7 p.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow

Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

Stars: Chaz Harbin, Kevin Pollack, Michael Beach, Penelope Ann Miller

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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