Bright Road (1953)
The quality of work opportunities for African-American actors in Hollywood during the 1950s was simply not there. Outside of the major studios, an industry for race films – a general term for films produced from the silent era into the early 1950s that contained all-black casts and crew (other non-white races had “race films”, but the term is generally understood as predominantly black) – thrived thanks to audiences that wanted to see people who resembled themselves onscreen. These independent studios that released race films, however, were prone to financial woes and institutional disadvantages. After World War II, the major studios began to notice the draw of these films and began casting African-American stars as first- or second-billed stars in non-musical movies (musicals with all-black casts were considered decently marketable, although with this came certain stereotypes).
Most of these early major Hollywood studio attempts to have black actors in these significant parts dealt with race relations – some of these films, like 1950′s No Way Out (Sidney Poitier’s feature film debut), looked at prejudice and racial violence in ways radical even now. So when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) decided to adapt Mary Elizabeth Vroman’s 1951 short story, “See How They Run”, MGM set into motion a film that, by its very modesty, is as radical as the likes of No Way Out. Directed by Gerald Mayer (the nephew of MGM head Louis B. Mayer), Bright Road is completely absent of racial conflict; its story set in a small, racially homogeneous neighborhood and schoolhouse in a pre-Brown v. Board America. Made for peanuts and allocated a shooting schedule of nineteen days, Bright Road would be, to the opinion of MGM executives, a minor financial risk that would not hurt the studio if it failed at the box office. More insidiously, it allowed Louis B. Mayer – wary of outside perceptions of nepotism – to assign his nephew (later nicknamed, “Keeper of the B’s”) a series of lower-budget movies.
Bright Road is certainly a B-picture, and never rises above the common deficiencies – crappy writing, disorganized narrative structure, suspect acting in some departments, unimaginative use of music/scoring – associated with B-pictures. But it is a fascinating film if just for the very fact that the sort of story it depicts – neglected by Hollywood in the 1950s, neglected even now – was ever made into a film.
Somewhere in rural Alabama, Ms. Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge) has arrived in an all-black town, beginning her career as an elementary school teacher. Her fourth-grade students are like any ordinary fourth-grade class: some are reticent or talkative, outgoing or shy, bookish or overwhelmed. Of Ms. Richards’ students, C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn) is the most troublesome – though he is artistic and intelligent (his illustrations of caterpillars and other wildlife are impressive), he is detached from his classmates and disinterested in school. C.T. is accustomed to being held back at each grade level, and expects to be held back again before summer vacation. The school’s principal (Harry Belafonte) considers C.T. a, “backward child”, but encourages Ms. Richards to do as she sees fit. Also starring in Bright Road are Barbara Randolph (a future Motown singer credited as Barbara Ann Sanders) as C.T.’s best friend Tanya, Maidie Norman as Tanya’s mother, and dozens of child actors. Vivian Dandridge – Dorothy’s older sister – is a fellow teacher, Ms. Nelson.
Adapting Vroman’s short story to the big screen is Emmet Lavery (whose credits are meager, but include an Oscar nomination for 1955′s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell). Lavery’s screenplay – Vroman also assisted in the adaptation, making her the first black member of the Screen Writers Guild (absorbed into the Writers Guild of America, West in 1954) – feels better suited for 1950s television than for movie theaters. The film’s incidents lean heavily on expository passages and scenes never seem to last for a few minutes at a time. It’s as if Lavery was hesitant to keep the drama in a certain space where the audience might further explore the psychology of the characters, any resistance that Ms. Richards’ pedagogical habits might be facing from the administration (Belafonte’s principal is a bit too perfectly aligned with his newest teacher’s opinions). The character of Ms. Richards is provided several instances of voice-over narration along the lines of C.T.-I-know-you-can-do-this or what-should-I-do-now that weakens the screenplay. The screenplay distrusts Dandridge and Hepburn into pushing themselves into a performance that can express those internal monologues; narration like that seen in Bright Road is almost never needed.
Vroman herself was a schoolteacher in Alabama and “See How They Run” was based on her experiences in a classroom. More than Lavery, she would be attuned to how children behave in her community, which allows Bright Road a youthful charm where the children are never too ingratiating on viewers nor are they anonymous figures in service of Ms. Richards’ storyline – the latter being a frequent cardinal sin committed by the “teacher movie” subgenre. Vroman’s short story is also absent of any white characters, and it is remarkable how Lavery remained faithful to that concept despite the potential of executive meddling – which doesn’t appear to have occurred – to insert a white actor somewhere to appeal to a broader audience. The film’s apolitical approach (”apoliticism” being the oxymoron that it is) means the concentration is on the relationship between the teacher and her students. Though the fraudulent practice of “separate, but equal” schools existed then, it serves as background only. Dandridge, considering the history of African-American movies produced within the major studios at this time, was attracted to a film passing on a chance to comment on race relations, saying that the film, “showed that beneath any color skin, people are simply people. I wanted any white girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, ’Why, this schoolteacher could be me.’”
Dorothy Dandridge, one year from starring as the titular Carmen Jones, is fine in Bright Road – though, I suspect that with better writing, this starring turn could have been even more effective. Her tenderness and sensitivity here are well-balanced by a necessary directness and insistence that her students at least attempt their best efforts. Bright Road is also one of very few films in which Dandridge’s own singing voice was used in the final sound mix. For Harry Belafonte in his cinematic debut, he had to pull back from the sensuality that defined his musical career; he simply does not have enough time to establish himself here. C.T. is played by Philip Hepburn in his first of only two on-screen performances – the other coming in a 1957 episode of the television series The Big Story. From what little available online on Hepburn, I cannot independently verify much about his life (or even if he is alive). But in any case, it’s an excellent, assured performance by the then-12-year-old that that is dripping with charisma and believability.
David Rose’s (yet another obscure career to mention; his work includes an Academy Award nomination in Original Score for 1944′s The Princess and the Pirate) score is a disappointment. Noting the title of Vroman’s original short story, “See How They Run, Rose integrates “Three Blind Mice” to grating excess. It is more of an adaptation score than an original score, and the music is there to merely operate parallel to the images onscreen. The score neither provides setting nor swell emotions. One original song sung by Harry Belafonte – “Suzanne (Ev’ry Night When the Sun Goes Down” – was composed by Belafonte and guitarist Millard Thomas. It is not integrated neatly into the scene it follows, as it sparks the beginning of one of the film’s several subplots that I found less believable than the others.
Bright Road arrived at a mentally trying time for Dorothy Dandridge. She had just divorced her first husband, Harold Nicholas, and their daughter, Harolyn – born with a neurological disorder – was about the same age of the children running around on set. Observing all these children playing with each other during and in between shoots proved too overwhelming for Dandridge on one day of shooting, and she had to run to her dressing room to cry it out and recollect herself before resuming. But director Gerald Mayer and those on set were sympathetic, and Bright Road would be therapeutic for her. And despite its significant problems, Bright Road is an underseen, overlooked film more compelling and radical than at first glance.
My rating: 6/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.