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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the true story behind Ruby Bridges is inspiring but may be too emotionally intense for younger kids. Ruby was only 6 years old when she became the first African American child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960, yet she withstood daily threats and insults as she entered school, and had to be escorted by armed guards. Most viewers will find the scenes of adults threatening and name-calling a first-grader disturbing, and kids could be frightened by the cruelty of the racism on display. This includes blunt racist insults and taunts, including the "N" word and other slurs. The film also has a strong Christian message of the power of faith and belief in Jesus, although characters also question the portrayal of Jesus as a white man.
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What's the story?
RUBY BRIDGES is based on the real-life story of a 6-year-old African American girl (played by newcomer Chaz Monet) selected by the NAACP due to her high test scores to attend an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960. Although desegregation of schools was national law, many areas in the South were slow or resistant to carry out the policy. In the film, Ruby's parents (Michael Beach and Lela Rochon) agree to send her to the school, even though she has to be protected by federal marshals due to increasingly violent protests outside. Other parents pull their white children out of the school, and Ruby's presence causes resentment among the all-white school staff. One teacher, Mrs. Henry (Penelope Ann Miller), a recent transplant from Boston, is assigned as Ruby's teacher and advocates on behalf of the girl's rights and integration. Ruby's family also receives support from the NAACP, their local community, and a psychiatrist (Kevin Pollak) who volunteers his services. Thanks to this support and her strong faith in God, Ruby weathers the experience unscathed.
Is it any good?
This has all the hallmarks of a TV movie, with overly expository dialogues and heavy-handed music telling an after-school audience exactly what to think and feel in key scenes. Such manipulative direction might typically turn more mature audiences off, but Ruby Bridges' true-life story would leave only the coldest of viewers indifferent. Played with impressive authenticity by then-newcomer Chaz Monet, little Ruby is a deeply moving protagonist depicted as innocently withstanding horrific death threats, racist insults, and exclusion by other kids.
Ruby's experience was memorialized in a famous Norman Rockwell painting that positions the white-dressed child as a lonely heroine. The film takes a different stance, showing how Ruby overcame the horror of her experience with broad support from her strong-willed mother, loving father (an excellent Michael Beach), well-meaning psychiatrist (Pollak, looking a little stiff in the role), and strong religious faith. "Jesus faced a mob too, just like you," Ruby is told. "We are a people under fire," a pastor bellows at his congregation in a scene that may help explain the Bridges' determination. "The only way things are gonna get better for them is if we make them better," Lucy argues about ensuring that children of color have more opportunities than she and her husband did. Such messages of peaceful resistance against lingering discrimination remain relevant today.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the history of desegregating schools in the United States, as well as the life story of the real Ruby Bridges. Where could you learn more?
Why do you think Ruby was so brave? Can you imagine living an experience like hers? How would you get through it?
Do you think Ruby's parents made the right decision to send her to the all-white school? Why or why not?
Why do you think the protestors were so hateful toward Ruby? How do you feel about the other children's reactions to Ruby?
Did you find Mrs. Henry's explanation of slavery appropriate for a first-grader? Do you know anything about the history of the KKK?
- In theaters: May 8, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: January 18, 1998
- Cast: Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Pollak, Michael Beach, Chaz Monet
- Director: Euzhan Palcy
- Studio: Disney
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism, Great Girl Role Models, History
- Character strengths: Courage
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Last updated: June 19, 2020
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