A Class Divided Review

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AKA: N/A
Genre: Documentary
Year Released: 1985

Distributor:
PBS

Origin: USA
Running Time: 53 minutes

Rating/Recommended Audience:
13+
Related Films/Series: The Eye of the Storm (1970 Documentary)
For Fans Of: Last Day of Freedom, Please Vote For Me, His Big White Self
Notes:
-Special thanks to Zenas Hopson for telling me about this documentary.

-This is a sequel to The Eye of the Storm, but it’s not necessary to watch A Class Divided since the footage is shown frequently and Jane Elliott’s experiment has been mentioned in classes and books.

-A Class Divided is streaming on YouTube.

 

-This review was first written in mid-June during some of the unrest with racism and police brutality.
Fun Facts:
-Riceville, Iowa is a very small town split between Mitchell and Howard counties in the Northern part of the state. There are actually less people living there currently with 761 people compared to roughly 1000 people at the time A Class Divided was filmed. One notable person from there is Ray Conger who was an Olympic runner. He held records in the 1000 and 1500m races.

-At the time of this review, Jane Elliott is still alive today at age 87. She’s been teaching since 1968. Outside of the documentaries, she’s been featured on ABC, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and The Oprah Winfrey show.

-A Class Divided was directed by the late journalist and documentary filmmaker William Peters. He also directed the first film with The Eye of the Storm, Africa, and has won an Emmy for his work in A Class Divided.

-One of the producers who also has a brief on-screen cameo is Charlie Cobb Jr. He has worked for NPR, PBS, and he has the distinction of being the first black writer for National Geographic. Interestingly enough, he briefly lived in Tanzania in the 70s.


Racism is an even hotter topic than usual.

Given the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more, people are starting to wake up. There has been worldwide outrage going on with these moments of atrocity and that’s not getting into how peaceful protestors are mistreated. White people got their wake-up call once video came out of 75 year old anti-nuclear activist Martin Gugino getting assaulted by cops in Buffalo, New York. I realized just how strange as well as uncertain these times are. I never thought in my life that Sesame Street characters would be brought in a CNN Town Hall to talk about these issues, for several companies to voice support for equality (some are more genuine than others, let’s keep it real), Mitt Romney showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest, or even seeing statues featuring the likes of King Leopold II or even Christopher Columbus of all people being taken down is mind blowing to me. It’s 2020 and the fact that we have to have conversations about racism is quite frustrating. You think there would be more progress by now, but life is cruel like that. However, these conversations still need to be had until things are worked on to be better.

Some of those conversations have been going on since the late 60s. One such conversation involved a social experiment in a third grade class in an all white town in the Midwest.

 

A Class Divided is a documentary from PBS’s Frontline series during their 3rd season. In Riceville, Iowa, there is a teacher named Jane Elliott. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she tried to come up with a way for the children to process this national tragedy. However, Elliott was in a rural town with no black or any POC individual in the demographics at the time. She engages an experiment with her elementary school class so her students understand what discrimination is like. Elliott gets collars for students who have brown eyes and makes them an underclass. The next day, the roles are reversed. During this time, the normally well-behaved students get nasty once the collars are put on and academic scores are affected. This was all documented in the ABC documentary The Eye of the Storm which is shown again to her original students who are now adults as part of a reunion. They look back at this experience and wonder how they could act discriminatory towards others. This also shows Elliott’s work with adults with similar experiments involving psychologists and prison workers to open their eyes.

I have actually heard of the famous blue eye/brown eye experiment in a book when I was in high school, but I didn’t make the connection with Jane Elliott until not long ago with some videos I watched, other books, and an interview with Philippe “Shock” Matthews. She seemed very genuine in wanting there to be racial harmony as well as for the white community to be aware of their privilege in their everyday situations. I can see that most of the time during this documentary. I do applaud her efforts in doing her best to make people aware of what discrimination feels like in a way that anyone can understand. Seeing the experiments in the archived footage was quite jarring seeing the kids with collars bullied and verbally mistreated. It turned a harmonious class into discord. Children who were best friends became worst enemies in just a day’s time which was just saddening. Seeing an updated experiment with the adults in the final third of the movie was fascinating in it’s own right. Those with blue eyes got to be mistreated and discriminated. This was also a majority white group of adults and seeing a black man discriminate against a white person was such stark irony even if it was part of this larger experiment. Elliott doesn’t tolerate people whitesplaining and the white savior complex, so I really appreciated her calling that stuff out in some of the interviews. Outside of the overall content of the experiments, there were certainly good things about the production. It had a no-frills approach with minimal effects besides various titles here and there. Yes, I know there was footage that would’ve looked dated even at the time with the Eye of the Storm clips, but they really weren’t distracting at all. I was also surprised with how fast-paced it was with everything that happened. I was surprised by how much it flew as all these events transpired.

A Class Divided could use a bit of tutoring here and there. Jane Elliott doing most of the talking is fine, but I never got to know that much about the various students besides a brief group discussion after they relive through their experiences in that original documentary. This also goes for most of the adults in the 2nd half of the documentary. I didn’t know much about them. The brief bit about the prison in New York state didn’t go anywhere besides the prisoners talking about their experiences briefly. While the camera footage did work despite obviously being made in the 80s, some of the more dated aspects definitely show up like the end credits and the occasional post-production effect. They were few and far between, but it is still obvious that it was made in 1985 even if the topics are (sadly) still relevant thirty-five years later. There were also scenes that made me very uncomfortable watching it. The most obvious were the Eye of the Storm clips where a couple of the children say the N-word. I get this was filmed in the late 60s, but that’s still no excuse for them to say that word so easily. Yes, I know Jane Elliott does use the word later on as part of a quote in adult conversation, but I still got douche chills with that. In the students’ defense, that experiment did have a lasting effect from what I’ve seen, but that could’ve been handled so much better. I did have an issue with Jane Elliott talking about the plight of Native Americans by calling them Indians or “red” while mentioning a teepee activity as a prototype in her earlier classes.

A Class Divided is an important watch and certainly one of PBS’s vintage documentaries from Frontline. The production isn’t flashy, but certainly serviceable. There was lots of fascinating insight into the students and adult subjects as they take part in the blue eye/brown eye experiment. I do wish there were more perspectives instead of Jane Elliott doing most of the heavy lifting conversation wise. However, the good did outweigh the bad. I’m not saying it’s the best documentary about racism ever, but you can do far worse than A Class Divided. Still recommended.


Adjustable Point Scores:

-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Jane Elliott’s psychology and education work.
-Subtract 1-3 points if the concept of white privilege makes you very uncomfortable.

Pros:
-Gritty cinematography
-Still relevant even to this day
-Jane Elliott’s experiments and criticizing white savior aspects

Cons:
-Some dated post-production aspects
-So many people are unknown here
-The children saying the N-word in archived footage is very uncomfortable

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: A Class Divided should be fine for teens and up. There’s some profanity and sadly most of that involves THAT racial slur. There’s adult subject matter with racism, discrimination, white privilege, and other similar topics.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. A Class Divided is property of PBS. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of PBS.

3 comments

  1. Just showed this to my students in a college Pol econ of race, class, gender course… Something that came out of the post-watch discussion with students was that ‘the way it taught how to be discriminating and a bully was more incisive than the the empathy it claimed to be promoting’. Thanks for your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, good on you for talking about this documentary with your students. It’s good that you had a discussion with this subject. It’s sad that people use racism in subtle and overt ways. I do wish there was more representation from the nonwhite interviewees in the 2nd half though. I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

      Like

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