With All Deliberate Speed, a documentary by Peter Gilbert (who produced Hoop Dreams), aims to tell a story that has been lost in the many events and articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision ending legal school segregation. But in this film’s sprawling yet dutifully chronological structure, the magnificent stories of the unknown citizens who fought and paid dire prices for decent public education remain somewhat obscured—not separate, but still unequal.
Some of this history has been well covered by other films, particularly the court journeys of the five Brown v. Board of Education cases, and the role of NAACP lawyers like Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall. What Gilbert has in ample supply, though, is footage of many of the African Americans who as children put themselves and their families at risk. While the filmmaker avoids a conventional episodic format driven by central characters in conflict, he hasn’t created one that could keep a complex story clear. Viewers may need more specifics, more titling of speakers and places, and other connective tissue. The film is also bogged down by the insertion of fairly bland dramatic readings, unfocused visits with contemporary high school students, and intrusive, unoriginal music.
Near the end, one gets what this fight truly meant: Most of the 80 black tenant cotton farmers who signed on for the case in Clarendon County, South Carolina, were forced out of their homes—never to return—in the 1954 aftermath. Their minister’s church was burned to the ground and his home shot up by a mob. Barbara Johns and the other 13- to 18-year-olds who went on strike in Prince Edward County, Virginia, were told by the school superintendent that their parents would lose their jobs, and he didn’t care “if you never go to school.” All schools were closed for five years. These kids, the children of black farmers, were sent by their families to live in other cities, even put into foster care, so they could attend school. They speak of incredible parents who backed them through cross burnings, threats, and years of payback. This should be their film. Here’s hoping there’s another edit.