Bright Road (1953): All-Black School Drama, Starring Dorothy Dandridge as Idealistic Teacher

Directed by Gerald Mayer (Louis B.Mayer’s nephew), Bright Road was adapted from short story “See How They Run,” by Mary Elizabeth Vroman.

Featuring nearly all-black cast, the film stars Dorothy Dandridge as an idealistic elementary school teacher trying to reach out to one problem student.

The movie marks the screen acting debut of Harry Belafonte, who plays the school’s kind principal.

Rather unusually, Dandridge the actress begins the story by introducing herself and the other figures of the tale, and periodically, she also narrates the proceedings.

Dandridge plays Jane Richards, a young teacher who begins her career at a rural African-American elementary school in Alabama. One of the students in her fourth-grade class is C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn), who, though bright, is not motivated or interested in school.  It has taken him two years to advance through each grade level.

Richards becomes determined to get through to C.T. and have him take only one year to complete her class, though the school’s other teachers have given up on him as “a backward child.”

The school’s principal (Harry Belafonte) also has doubts about C.T., but he admires Richards’ enthusiasm and endorses her efforts.

Gradually, despite great odds, Richards’ efforts with C.T. begin to pay dividends and his grades improve.

However, all of her progress with him seems to be undone when C.T.’s classmate and closest friend Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders) dies from a viral pneumonia. Devastated by the loss, C.T. runs away from school.

Upon his return, he starts a schoolyard fight. When asked to apologize for his actions, he refuses, isolating himself even more from his teacher and classmates. Frustrated and saddened, Richards must giving C.T. the failing marks that he used to.

When she overhears C.T. helping another student with arithmetic, Richards understands that, despite his refusal to participate in class, he has actually continued to learn.  Seeing this demonstration of knowledge, she is heartened and quietly changes his failing grade into an ‘A’.

C.T.’s involvement in the class increases when he calmly handles a crisis, in which a swarm of bees invades the room.  The other students and Richards panic and swat at the bees, but C.T. calmly collects the queen and carries it outside.

The school year ends with Richards’ class observing a caterpillar emerge from its cocoon transformed into a butterfly. Richards notes, “just as you and I will be born again someday, and everyone we’ve ever known or loved,” and that witnessing the butterfly’s first flight represents “a wonderful promise of things to come.”

Richards is rewarded for her hard work, when C.T., leaving for summer vacation, stops by to tell her that he loves her.

The only white character in the film is the doctor, who’s called to diagnose Tanya.

Both Dandridge and Belafonte would go on to have illustrious career.  Dandridge would get Best Actress nomination for Preminger’s musical Carmen Jones, but her career would be cut short due to her untimely death (suicide).

In contrast, Belafonte would become a leading man and use his considerable singing skills in a number of movies.  Alongside Sidney Poitier, Belafonte would be Hollywood’s most prominent African-American thespian.

Cast

Dorothy Dandridge – Jane Richards
Philip Hepburn – C.T. Young
Harry Belafonte – School Principal
Barbara Randolph – Tanya
Maidie Norman – Tanya’s Mother
Rene Beard – Booker T. Jones
Howard McNeeley – Boyd
Robert McNeeley – Lloyd
Patti Marie Ellis – Rachel Smith
Joy Jackson – Sarahlene Babcock
Fred Moultrie – Roger
James Moultrie – George
Carolyn Ann Jackson – Mary Louise
Vivian Dandridge – Miss Nelson

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