The 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision has inspired many column inches of expansive and tough-minded inquiry, a lot of it focused on how much easier the famous Supreme Court ruling was to make than it was to implement. With All Deliberate Speed, a documentary that chronicles the history that led up to Brown as well as its uncertain aftermath, is sober and honorable, yet it’s far from searching. It mixes photographs, interviews, and archival footage to show us what many of the segregated black schools of the ’30s and ’40s were actually like. Dilapidation, it seems, wasn’t merely their condition – it was their worldview. When the actor Joe Morton recites some of the pioneering rhetoric of educator-activist Charles Houston, the earnest heat of Houston’s idealism remains undiminished.
Yet there’s a complacency, if not an undertow of dullness, to the film’s righteous booster spirit. Half a century after Brown, the issue of integration looks far more complicated than it did then, if only because it’s so much clearer now that segregated schools remain but one symptom of a larger economic and cultural malaise. ”With All Deliberate Speed” takes its title from the notorious phrase, embedded in the Court’s 1955 update of its decision, that proved so legally murky as a trigger for integration. The film’s tone is, There should have been more speed and less deliberation. Period. It’s an unassailable message, yet one that’s a shade too tidy, leading us to view the birth of the Civil Rights era with a nostalgia that verges on passivity.