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Crisis at Central High [Book and Movie]

The book Crisis at Central High, based on the events surrounding the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County), was a memoir written by school administrator Elizabeth Huckaby (1905–1999) and published in 1980. A prestigious television movie based on the book, also titled Crisis at Central High, was filmed at Central and starred Academy Award–winning actress Joanne Woodward. For her portrayal of Huckaby in the 1981 film, Woodward was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award.

In September 1957, nine African-American students attempted to attend the all-white Central High. After they were prevented from entering by members of the state’s National Guard, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division was ordered by President Dwight Eisenhower to enforce the law and protect the students. Eventually, the students—who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine—entered the school under armed guard. Troops remained at Central throughout the school year, with the black students subjected to continuing harassment by whites. At the end of the school year, on May 27, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central.

As Central’s assistant principal during that time, Huckaby’s job was to assist the black students. Huckaby, a former English teacher, kept a diary of events, which formed the basis of her book, Crisis at Central High, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. She had attempted to find a publisher several times and was successful only after Time-Life Films began production of the made-for-television movie.

Based on the book’s draft, the TV movie was produced by CBS Entertainment Productions. Called a “docudrama,” it was filmed on location in Little Rock, with some scenes shot at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, Texas, since Central remained an active school campus. The movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link (who were the also film’s executive producers, along with David Susskind of Time-Life Productions) was directed by Emmy Award winner Lamont Johnson. The story was told from Huckaby’s point of view inside the school, although it was later reported that Huckaby felt the movie expanded her role. Along with Woodward, cast members included Academy Award–nominated actor Charles Durning as school principal Jess Matthews. Regina Taylor, a multiple Emmy Award–nominated actress and Golden Globe winner, played one of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown. A number of local people were extras, crew members, and actors, including noted Little Rock actor Robert Ginnaven (1937–2008) as General Thomas Woods.

The film was broadcast on the CBS network in prime time on February 4, 1981. The critical reception was generally positive, with reviews praising the acting, especially that of the young actors portraying the Little Rock Nine. John J. O’Connor of the New York Times stated that the students were “played to quiet perfection.” A disclaimer indicated that some roles were composite characters, and Huckaby herself noted that some events were presented out of sequence, while others were slightly altered. O’Connor was one reviewer who felt that as a docudrama, especially one about such heated events, the movie should have more specifically identified those instances where reality was altered.

The film was promoted as a prestige project, to which the caliber of the cast and production team can attest. It was originally billed as a three-hour presentation, or the network’s entire primetime block. It was later cut down to 125 minutes, or about two hours, running for two and a half hours with commercials.

The film was translated into other languages, including Spanish as Crisis en Las Aulas (Crisis in the Classrooms) and an Italian version titled Negro Go Home. Today, Crisis at Central High is often shown in schools nationwide.

For additional information:
Crisis at Central High (1981). Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082215/  (accessed May 9, 2015).

Huckaby, Elizabeth. Crisis at Central High, Little Rock, 1957–58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

O’Connor, John J. “TV: Little Rock, 1957—Crisis at Central High.” New York Times, February 4, 1981. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/02/04/arts/tv-little-rock-1957-crisis-at-central-high.html (accessed May 9, 2015).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated 5/13/2016

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