Ruby Bridges (1998)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Euzhan Palcy
Run Time
1 hour and 36 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will act.
 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
    and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

Psalm 37:5-6
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah 11:6
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…

Matthew 5:43-45a
Each school day 4 armed U.S. Marshalls protect Ruby from the angry white mob.             (c) Walt Disney Television
Ruby Bridges tells the story of how a six-year old Black girl integrated a New Orleans segregated school in 1960. Of course, Ruby didn’t achieve this feat alone– there was the NAACP that chose her;  four US Marshalls that kept back the angry mob of haters bent on lynching her; a kind-hearted White teacher who pushed back against her racist superiors; a famous psychiatrist to help her with the stress; and, most of all, her courageous mother who shared the deep faith that gave the girl the strength to persist. Not expecting a whole lot of it because it was a Disney film, it turned out to soar way beyond my expectations.

The dramatic story begins with Dr. Broyard (Peter Francis James) of the NAACP who was so impressed by Ruby’s test scores after kindergarten that he visits the Bridges’ with the proposal that their bright daughter be one of the students to integrate William Frantz Elementary School. Her father Abon (Michael Beach) is not so sure about the proposal, but her mother Lucielle ‘Lucy’ Bridges (Leia Rochon) readily agrees, as does little Ruby (Chaz Monet).

The next day four Federal Marshalls show up to escort mother and daughter to the school. They are definitely needed, the hate-filled crowd, carrying signs with racial slurs, chanting, “2-4-6-8, We don’t want to integrate.” This is the most frightful part of the film, the vicious crowd showing up every day that Ruby attends school to spew their venom. Especially scary to the little girl is the nasty woman holding up a small coffin with a presumably dead black doll within it. This gives rise to the fear of poisoning so that Ruby never is allowed to eat in the school cafeteria. She will be relegated to her classroom to eat alone with the lunch prepared by her mother.

The first day of school mother and daughter spend the day sitting in the school office surrounded by hostile staff. If looks could kill! The head of staff Miss Woodmere (Diane Scarwid) makes no attempt to cover up her distaste of the black girl’s presence. And I write the singular “girl” because the other three black children have made other plans, leaving Ruby as the one intruder in the all white school.

All the mothers of the children that would have been in Ruby’s first grade class angrily withdraw their children. The White teachers refuse to accept a “colored” pupil. Fortunately for Ruby, newcomer Mrs. Henry (Penelope Ann Miller), from Boston, says she has no problem teaching just one student. After a few days Lucielle must return to work, leaving her daughter to the kind teacher’s care. The two get along well, Mrs. Henry discovering how bright her sole pupil is and defending her against Miss Woodmere’s denigration of her when the little girl achieves all “As” on her tests. When her complaint that Ruby needs art and physical education fall on deaf ears, she even leads her little charge in physical education exercises.

Ruby also receives help from Dr. Robert Coles (Kevin Pollak), a psychiatrist who has worked with children facing stress. When his attempts to contact Ruby are rebuffed by Miss Woodmere, he persists, finally visiting the family, through the good offices of NAACP President Dr. Broyard, to offer his help. Again, Abon  is not interested, but later, when Ruby acts bizarrely with her doll, Lucielle apparently convinces her husband to change his mind. There begins a series of sessions in which Cole asks the little girl to draw her school and family. Eventually he sees that she draws the Negroes without an arm or a mouth and her family with pink skin and “whole,” thus indicating internal problems. Another problem is the girl’s lack of appetite displayed at suppertime when she cannot be coaxed to eat. Unseen by any is the girl’s practice at lunchtime of disposing of her lunch in a cabinet. Cole is also is puzzled by her persistence in returning each day to face the hatred of the crowd and the shunning of most of the staff and students. By what means is she coping?

The latter we understand first from what we are shown of the family’s religious life. Early on we see them in a joyful church scene where the pastor preaches a relevant social gospel, declaring, “We are a people under fire.” There are several scenes in which Lucielle talks with her daughter, connecting Jesus with what Ruby is going through by telling her, “Jesus faced a mob too, just like you. You know what he did? He prayed for them.” And then she goes on to quote from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted…” In another scene the scared girl late at night comes to her mother because she is thinking of the hateful crowd, and her mother tells her to pray. She gets out of bed to look in on the girl, who is on her knees beside her bed praying.

How well the little girl ingests her mother’s words of faith we see in two scenes. In the first Ruby again is being ushered through the angry demonstrators when she stops, turns and walks down the steps, back toward the demonstrators. (I just noticed that in their case “demon” at the beginning of the longer word is appropriate!) She utters some words, but we cannot hear them. Dr. Cole is in the crowd, and he is worried that she has given in to resentment or rage.

In their next session the following exchange takes place:

Dr. Robert Coles:  Honey, I saw you talking to them. Did you finally get angry with them? Did you tell them to just leave you alone?

Ruby Nell Bridges: No, I didn’t tell them anything. I didn’t talk to them.

Dr. Coles: I was there; I saw your lips movie

Ruby : But I wasn’t talking to them. I was praying for them

Dr. Coles: Praying for them?

Ruby: Yes, I pray for them every day in the car. But I forgot that day.

Dr. Coles: Oh. What prayer did you say?

Ruby : Please, God, forgive these people because even if they say those mean things they don’t know what they’re doing. So, You can forgive them just like You did  those folks a long time ago when they said terrible things about You.

Wow! Talk about “a little child shall lead them”! And that, in effect is what Cole means when he says several times that she has taught him. He has found the answer to the question of what has pulled her through, the strong faith imparted by her mother and community.

In addition to such powerful scenes involving Ruby, one that moved me deeply and which added depth to the depiction of her father is the one between him and his wife. All through the film he has been skeptical and reluctant to subject their Ruby to what amounts to a wrenching social experiment. More than once he declares “that integration does not work.” Returning home and revealing that he has been fired from his job because of Ruby, he describes his life as a soldier in Korea where he was treated by white officers like dirt. He received no respect and was given the dirtiest tasks to perform. Lucielle offers him the same sympathetic support she has given their daughter, assuring him in effect that God would make things turn out right.

Things do begin to change. A Methodist minister brings his son back to the school, even though the crowd yells that he is a traitor. Another child on his own runs up the school steps despite his mother’s call to come back. The hostility of fellow teacher Miss Spencer (Patrika Darbo) slowly melts beneath the warmth of Mrs. Henry. She declares out loud that the latter is a good teacher and agrees that the first graders in her 2nd grade class can sit in part of the time with Ruby. The white children at first reflect the prejudice of their parents, but this is eroded by Ruby’s graceful charm and the encouragement of Mrs. Henry. By the end of the film there is hope—we see the white boy smiling with Ruby as they sit together on the schoolyard merry-go-round—though we know it was just the end of 1960 (or early 1961) and that there was yet a long road filled with grief still ahead for those striving to overcome racial barriers.

I was very impressed by the insights in the script (winner of the prestigious Humanitas Prize and Christopher Award) by Toni Ann Johnson. Not only is Ruby’s story well told, but we see the development in the character of several of the people. We have already seen that Abon’s agony and mistrust that any good can come from integration are explored, but we see upward progress in others as well, especially Dr. Coles. At first he sees Ruby from his perspective of a doctor of the mind reaching down to help a little girl under stress, but no more. He chides his wife Jane (Jean Louisa Kelly) for suggesting that he relate to the Bridges on a more personal basis, rather than just on the professional. He rejects Lucielle‘s gracious hospitality a couple of times, turning down offers of food and drink. As soon as he finishes a session with Ruby, he is ready to leave. However, when he realizes why Ruby, despite some problems, handles the hatred hurled at her so well because of the family’s faith, he opens up, at last socializing with the Bridges. He even goes with Abon to the local juke joint for a beer. This scene is a delight to watch not only because of their comradery, but also because there is a jazz band jamming, the first time we are treated to a taste of the music that New Orleans is noted for.

Also insightful is the way in which NAACP head Dr. Broyard and his wife relate to the Bridges—and how the perceptive Abon reacts to this. When I first saw the NAACP head I thought that the actor was overdoing the polite treatment of the Bridges because of poor acting or direction. But later, when the obviously cultured pair invite Ruby to their home where she can play their piano, but they do not include the parents, Abon boils over after they have left. The non-judgmental Lucielle tries to deny her husband’s charge that they were not invited because of their blue-collar status, but Abon knows better. I realize that the first scene with Dr. Broyard was intended to show us his paternalistic condescension. Blacks are no more free from internal class divisions than are Whites.

(There is more to be said about this marvelous film, but I might have already taxed the patience of some readers, so if you want more, see my blog “Three More Thoughts on the Film RUBY BRIDGES” that I will be posting when I finish this review. I even include a link to a YouTube video on Rockwell’s painting of Ruby and the Marshalls.)

A combination of good acting, superb writing and direction make this, in my opinion, one of the best, if not the best Disney live action films that I have seen. I cannot recommend it too highly, especially for those continuing in their quest to understand racism in America and to honor those who courageously stood up to it, often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones.

For the article by  Nancy Jalasca Randle giving more background on the making of the film and an update on Ruby Bridges’ current activism click here. Yes, this brave girl, now a woman, is still alive and working to break down “the dividing wall of hostility!

Director Euzhan Palcy also directed another fine film about racism, this time set in South Africa in which Marlon Brando stars with Donald Sutherland.

This review will be in the October issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store. You will discover that your $39 pays for not just 12 issues of a journal that includes the discussion questions for the films, but a large archive of over 2200 films and even more reviews and special articles in all the issue of past issues of Visual Journals dating to 2012.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *