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Presence of ‘Marshall’ evokes irony

You couldn’t make this stuff up, even if you were writing a movie script – which they are.

But neither the script nor the epilogue of “Marshall” is likely to mention the incongruity: They’re filming a movie about the legal giant behind the desegregation of America’s schools in a city whose own school system has resegregated to the point that it’s again separate and unequal.

Granted, producers of the movie about civil rights lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall are filming in Buffalo because so much city architecture reflects that era, not because we’re so progressive on race and equity. The movie also highlights a period in Marshall’s career before his legal team won the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case to outlaw “separate but equal” schools.

Still, as a colleague noted, it’s hard to escape the irony.

In a news conference Sunday to kick off filming here over the next two months, the director marveled at City Hall’s art deco details. But inside, the School Board presides over a watered-down plan to end a civil rights dispute with the federal government and parents who filed the complaint to make the district live up to the Brown decision’s tenets. The board has fought them at every turn, including rejecting the most far-reaching proposals from a national civil rights consultant. Along the way, it has stalled, submitted incomplete reports, asked for extensions and generally behaved like the student who’ll do anything to get out of an assignment.

In the end, it produced a plan that – while broadening admissions criteria for top schools such as City Honors – notably ditched the recommendations to create a second such school or eliminate the neighborhood preference for getting into Olmsted 64 and its gifted program. Whites are the majority in both schools, even though the district is only 21 percent white. On the other hand, blacks and Hispanics are concentrated in the worst schools as segregation is now back at 1970s levels, when Buffalo launched a nationally recognized integration plan.

That retreat is compounded by the fact that most board members support, at least in part, neighborhood schools in a city with some of the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods.

Still, Mayor Byron Brown was on hand to say what a “tremendous honor” it is to have “Marshall” filmed here. He has been far less vocal about his city’s two-tiered school system that insults Marshall’s legacy.

But you won’t see any of that on film.

Maybe an outsider – Superintendent Kriner Cash, who’s nine months into the job – can bail out the board by steering its plans for attractive new schools to fruition. The hope is that the new schools actually do become so popular and academically competitive that there is no need to follow the consultant’s plan. And the district is halfway there: Demand for four of the first five new programs exceeds the available spots.

But ensuring academic rigor to put these schools on a par with the district’s best and guarantee an equal education for all will be a lot harder than generating initial buzz.

In picking a locale for filming, the director of “Marshall” said Buffalo “checked all the boxes.” Too bad that six decades after the court case, most minority students can’t yet say the same about the schools they attend.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com