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Wilmington-made Disney film ‘under review’ in Florida after parents complain

Chaz Monet plays the title role in Ruby Bridges, which was filmed in Wilmington in 1997.

A Disney film about a civil rights icon that was filmed in Wilmington a quarter of a century ago is at the center of a controversy in Florida after a white parent complained that the film was being shown to elementary school students.

Last week, several news outlets, including USA Today, The New York Times, CNN and NBC, reported that the film “Ruby Bridges” could potentially be removed from the school curriculum in Pinellas County, home of the city of St. Petersburg.

The 1998 film is based on the real-life story of a 6-year-old New Orleans girl who became one of the first black students to attend a white elementary school in Crescent City in 1960. It shows fierce opposition from white parents who did not want their children to go to school with black people.

How a Wilmington-set TV movie that originally aired January 18, 1998 on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney ended up at the center of controversy more than 25 years later is quite the tale of a legend.

Lela Rochon (left) and Chaz Monet in Ruby Bridges, filmed in Wilmington in 1997.

According to The Tampa Bay Times, a woman identified as Emily Conklin, the mother of a second grader in Pinellas County, filed a formal complaint saying that “Ruby Bridges” teaches children that whites hate blacks and should not be shown to elementary school students . Conklin had reportedly already decided not to let her own child see the film at school when she filed the complaint.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, a school principal emailed Conklin that the school system would stop showing the film. Late last week, the school system retracted that statement, according to the Times, saying it was a case of “miscommunication” and that the film could continue to be shown until a “screening board” made a recommendation on the issue.

Directed by Euzhan Palcy from a screenplay by Toni Ann Johnson, the film features multiple scenes of angry white protesters using racial slurs and threatening violence against 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, played by Chaz Monet. These scenes were filmed in front of Williston Middle School and Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, ironically considering Williston was an all-black high school during segregation.

The story goes on

“Ruby Bridges” also stars Lela Rochon and Michael Beach as Ruby’s parents; Kevin Pollock as a military psychiatrist trying to help Ruby and her family through the ordeal; and Penelope Ann Miller as Ruby’s friendly teacher.

The film begins on the outside of the Shuffler Center on Carolina Beach Road, which is currently the headquarters of the Opera House Theater Co. but was formerly an elementary school. In “Ruby Bridges” the building represents a school for black children.

Several Wilmington faces also appear in the film, including the late Port City bluesman Charlie Lucas, who appears in several scenes, and actor Robin Dale Robertson, who plays a television reporter.

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Robertson said he remembered polishing up his Louisiana accent to play the reporter and was particularly excited to have the film premiere on network television.

“Being on a network TV channel gave my parents, siblings, relatives and friends without cable a chance to watch it,” he said. “I didn’t expect the presentation to be opened by President Bill Clinton and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. That aspect in itself made the story more relevant to me, and I suppose the audience did too.”

Since then, Robertson has said he’s been getting final pay for his role, like clockwork every February.

Russell Clark, spokesman for New Hanover County Schools, said he has no record of how many times “Ruby Bridges” has been shown in area schools over the years, or if it has been shown at all.

This article originally appeared in Wilmington StarNews: Disney Civil Rights Film Ruby Bridges Goes “Under Review” in Florida