Lessons From Bright Road

Lessons From Bright Road
Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge) reports for her first day of teaching at a rural Alabama school, and discovers she already has a “problem child” in her class by the name of C.T. Young (Phillip Hepburn). C.T. is usually late to school, doodles during lectures, and would rather be outside looking at caterpillars than learning his multiplication tables.

He has repeated the second grade and also the third. Now he’s in the fourth grade and he expects he will repeat it as well. His past teachers have written him off as “backward” and C.T. has long since given up trying to prove them wrong.

Luckily for him, Miss Richards is the kind of teacher who doesn’t give up on any child and does everything she can to reach him and eventually teach him.

The story of Bright Road originated from the 1951 Christopher Award Winning piece in Ladies Home Journal called “See How They Run,” written by writer and school teacher Mary Elizabeth Vroman. The story is based on Miss Vroman’s real life classroom experience and, for the most part, the screenplay stays faithful to her short story.

Bright Road premiered in 1953 prior to the historic ruling in Brown v Board of Education; consequently, the school in the story is segregated. Rather than emphasizing the topic of racial equality, Vroman chose to focus on the relationship between the teacher and her students. As a teacher, she wanted to show that the story was not about race, but about the love of a teacher for her students.

To her, children were children, and teaching them was her priority. It comes as no surprise that when Miss Dandridge approached the role of Jane Richards, she wanted to play it so that any teacher of any race could see themselves in her situation.

Because the original story was written by a teacher, it is important to understand a teacher’s perspective. This is accomplished by hearing the inner thoughts of Miss Richards throughout the film.

Critics found the film respectable, but faulted it for being “too pretty,” perhaps desiring to see a shabbier, poorer Alabama. The reviewer from the New York Times also struggled to find reasons why C.T. was having problems in the classroom since C.T. lived in a small comfortable home with parents who loved him.

Again, from a teacher’s perspective, a child does not necessarily need to be homeless or abused in some way to have difficulties with traditional learning. The film clearly demonstrates that C.T. is intelligent. He understands how bees perform in their hives. He knows how long it takes for a caterpillar to become a butterfly. He even knows his multiplication tables.

The story also establishes that while he lives in a comfortable, albeit small home, his parents can only afford to provide the necessities for their children; there is nothing extra like presents at Christmastime. If anything, C.T. is a keen observer of life’s inequalities, and the disparities he witnesses can easily crush a child’s enthusiasm for anything.

Bright Road is a quiet film, an artful film. Like the shy child who stares out of the window during lecture time, it deserves a gentle approach and an open mind before making stereotypical assumptions.

Bright Road stars Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Phillip Hepburn, Barbara Randolph, and Maidie Norman.

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