Movie review: Attucks: The School That Opened a City (2016)

I had been looking forward to the premiere for months. I was eager to learn more about this famous school. As an added bonus, the documentary was being shown in the historic Madame Walker Theatre in Indianapolis.

The first inkling I had that this was a really big deal was when I was looking for parking. A number of people dressed in fine-looking clothes were migrating en masse to the Madame Walker Theatre.

TV cameras and photographers awaited those entering the theatre. A red carpet had been rolled out in front for those who were clearly more important than I. I choose to enter through the side entrance. The front half of the theatre was for VIPs. Did I mention that it was dawning on me that the premiere of the documentary was a bigger deal than I initially thought?

I chose a seat next to two gentlemen and watched those around me. Conversation with the gentleman immediately next to me was a bit confusing, full of truths or half-truths or lies. I couldn’t distinguish them. Did he go to Attucks? Yes. No. I wasn’t sure by his response. He played basketball. I was suspicious. The Tigers at Attucks were a famous basketball team in the 1950s.

A couple sat down next to me and after some chit chatting, the man started talking to the gentleman next to me. That’s how I found out his real name. Shedrick Mitchell. (I found out later that he played center the year that Attucks won the state championship the first time in 1.) His name popped up in the documentary, mentioned in the same breath as Oscar Robertson! (The other gentleman seated near me and in discussion with Mitchell played for the 1961-1962 Attucks team.)

Before the movie started, we were entertained by a string of VIPs. Angela Brown, an opera star and Attucks alumnus, sang to an excited crowd. Heads of the financial supporters of the documentary spoke. Senator Joe Donnelly read a letter that President Obama sent for this event commemorating Crispus Attucks High School, and then presented the letter to the current principal of Crispus Attucks, Lauren Franklin.

Franklin spoke about what Attucks means to her. Quite a lot. Experiences at Crispus Attucks helped many people succeed in life. They wouldn’t be who they were without having gone there. Franklin literally wouldn’t be without Crispus Attucks: Her parents met in their halls. (Her parents appear in the documentary and were seated a few seats down from me.)

The movie is filled with the who’s who of people who grew up in Crispus Attucks and went on to great things. Several were present for the premiere. (And did I see Bobby Plump, a player of the Milan basketball team whose state championship win in 1954 inspired the movie Hoosiers, walk down the aisle after the movie?). Scientists. Generals (the first and second African-American generals from Indiana, one of whom was a mentor to Colin Powell.). Athletes. Musicians. Politicians. You name it. Important people graduated from Attucks. The world would be a poorer place without them.

Born out of discrimination, Crispus Attucks employed highly educated and dedicated teachers who held Masters and PhDs. They demanded much from the students. Those students who rose to the challenge went on to thrive and succeed in life.

The downfall of segregation in some ways can be seen as the downfall of Crispus Attucks. The reason that the school existed as an enclave to nurture and educate African Americans in a world that was hostile was under attack. In spite of protests, in 1986 the school was repurposed as a junior high school, then in 1993 as a middle school, and finally in 2006 back as a high school (a medical magnet).

Those who had the good fortune of attending Crispus Attucks High School remember it fondly…and seem to count 1986 as the year the school died. My hope is that Crispus Attucks is rising again to take back the mantle of a school of excellence in preparing students for prominent roles and is able to follow in the steps of the school’s previous reputation for greatness.

The documentary is a history lesson about what obstacles African Americans faced in Indianapolis, the state, and the nation. The movie includes some brutal looks at what the state and Hoosiers did (or didn’t do) to African Americans—from the slums they were forced to live in, to the obstacles to education and work, to the insane popularity of the KKK in the 1920s.

While revealing embarrassing and sad realities of things that whites did to blacks, the documentary also shows the ways that Crispus Attucks helped African Americans thrive despite it all. The work and dedication to be the best was encouraging. Often murmurs rose from the audience during inspiring bits. Clearly some were remembering former teachers or coaches who made a huge difference in their lives. (Much of the audience of 900 was made up of Attucks alumni.)

I felt privileged to attend the premiere of Attucks: The School That Opened a City and to be a part of collective remembrances of a school that had such a lasting impact on the people who attended it and worked there. The movie deepened my historical knowledge about Indianapolis, discrimination, and the African-American experience here in Indy.

The documentary is scheduled to appear on WFYI September 22 at 8pm. Hopefully, it will also be shown on PBS stations throughout the country. Look for it.


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