Buffalo News

May 17, 2004
Author: ALAN PERGAMENT - News TV Critic

Documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow feels his latest project set inside a Buffalo city school, "I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education," could easily have a different title. "The title could have been 'I Sit Where I'm Comfortable,'" said Dow in a telephone interview. "Comfortable was a word that came up in every conversation. 'I sit where I feel comfortable.' 'I'm comfortable with my friends.' I don't want to be uncomfortable.'"

The film by Dow and his friend and business partner, Marco Williams, airs nationally at 9 and midnight tonight on The N, the nighttime network for teens carried on digital cable and satellite TV.  Shot in January and March, it looks at the self-segregation inside the lunchroom at Buffalo's Academy of Visual and Performing Arts 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark school integration decision.

Dow, who is white and Williams, who is black, agree that the lunchroom experiences at the school, founded in 1977 as part of Buffalo's response to the Supreme Court decision and a lawsuit that ordered the integration of Buffalo schools, would be similar at an inner city school at Topeka, Kan., or just about any area they have previewed the film.

The key difference between now and 1954 is the black students who sit with other blacks at Performing Arts and the whites who chose to sit with whites, have the choice.  "They have the choice and they don't feel it is a negative," said Dow, who worked with Williams on "The Two Towns of Jasper," an acclaimed documentary about the brutal murder of a black man by three white men in Texas. "In the past, they didn't have the choice and that was the problem. Now they are free to sit where they want."

Dow and Williams chose Performing Arts because of the school's diverse population, because they had a good experience previewing "The Two Towns of Jasper" there and because they wanted to look at race from a Northern venue after the previous project was set in the South.

"I think most Americans believe all the race problems exist south of the Mason-Dixon line," said Williams.
They weren't expecting miracles from the brief experiment, in which a group of kids attempted to get classmates to sit at integrated lunch tables. The goal was to at least try to understand each other's culture better and get past stereotypes.

Several students explain they prefer to sit with people they are comfortable being around and acknowledge that usually means they hang with people of their own race. Rarely, if at all, had they been to the homes of students of a different race until this show.

The film's most uncomfortable pairing is of Mike and Steven (no last names were used). Mike is a big Polish kid who candidly says his father's side of the family is racist and his mother's side is more open-minded and accepting of diversity. Mike is quiet during his visit to Steven's home. And Steven is just as uncomfortable going into Mike's world at a pool hall that isn't used to seeing any blacks.

Try as they do to understand each other, they can misread and be insensitive to each other's feelings. Noticeable by their absence are Mike's parents, who Dow said declined to appear. Mike's candor about his parents and his apparent discomfort almost make him a poignant figure.

"It was less about what Mike said about his parents and really what it said about him," said Williams. "A young white teenager conflicted on two sides of his family. Who you have to be in your neighborhood and who you want to be or trying to be at your school. Mike is easy to peg. 'He's the racist one.' But he really deserves better scrutiny and appreciation. He is very thoughtful, maybe not eloquent, about what it means to be a white teenager and how you are trying to cope with that and where values comes from."

More comforting is the relationship between an outgoing black student, Jason, and a gentle white kid, James, and the interaction between their families over dinner. The students bond and seem to generally enjoy the experience.

It is difficult to read too much from an experiment like this, but one can't help but wonder if some student discomfort isn't as much a class issue as it is a racial one. The filmmakers wish they had time to examine class, but note it was hard to do so in an hour.

"If we drew an early conclusion about the legacy of Brown it is that white flight is real and many of the schools have moved toward a resegregation as a result of economics," said Williams.

Eventually, the lunchroom was integrated and the student leaders' joy over that little victory is evident and uplifting. "It shows that when they have a common goal," said Dow, "we can overcome some of our differences."

But two months later, the students again separated along racial lines. It may make some viewers feel a little sad. But the filmmakers think it would be unrealistic to expect the social structure of the school and lunchroom could be changed quickly.

"I didn't feel sad," said Williams. "I felt perhaps more than anything it provided a pretty good representation of where we are in America today. I thought there was a fair amount of demonstration that much has changed for the positive in America, yet there is still much more progress to be made."