Building Bridges makes a simple story out of a complicated issue that is sufficient for students but lacking for adults.
Published on February 17, 2023
Rating 3 /5
Short and direct, Building Bridges is a solid snapshot of 1960s segregation from the perspective of youth. The film focuses on a critical historical moment when white and black people would integrate into the same school. It was a historical integration, but an aspect that mostly feels like it’s reduced in narratives to the mere fervor brought to segregated communities. This film tries to paint a whole picture of this event.
Being placed in a white school for the first time is the black girl Ruby Bridges. She calmly lets her mother dress her for the day while her mom tries to hold back the fears of what they’ll face. True enough, Ruby’s first day at school requires an escort to help guide them through protestors, angry about black people infiltrating their whites-only institutions. It’s a familiar and stock scene of racist white people shouting and stoic black people marching forward into progress. However, what happens when Ruby enters the school becomes more compelling.
Ruby attends an empty classroom with a willing white teacher, Barbara Henry. The teacher, reviewing how much Ruby knows already, is impressed with her foreknowledge of reading, writing, and math. As they learn and grow, the days go by, forming a crucial bond over time. Eventually, however, Ruby’s mind draws towards the segregation of the school. She looks outside at recess and asks simple yet tough questions about inequality. The teacher, recognizing this injustice, takes a big step forward by letting Ruby socialize with the white kids on the playground. It does not go well for the restrictions the white kids adhere to from their racist parents.
The film is keen to highlight this specific moment of connection. An epilogue reveals more of the true story about how the integration affected Ruby’s entire family. Her dad lost his job, and the Bridges were banned from the grocery store. Though Mrs. Henry left the school when her contract was not renewed, Ruby would eventually be able to learn in the same classroom as other students at school. Ruby and Barabara would later reunite in the 1990s on Oprah.
I’m conflicted about this type of film, considering that it gets across a clear message but also leaves so much in the air. While it does trim most of the fat of melodrama that could be extracted from this tale, it becomes a bit too barebones in its brief glimpse of an era. It would have been nice to explore more of the relationship between Ruby and Barbara. However, they likely had a relatively standard student-teacher relationship, as Barbara cautiously treads through, keeping thoughts of racial inequality at bay. The epilogue feels so abrupt, and the last card highlighting how Ruby is in her 1960s is enough to make one question why she wasn’t a narrator in this story.
Building Bridges makes a simple story out of a complicated issue that is sufficient for students but lacking for adults. The best thing that can be said about the film is that it’s a bite-sized dose of 1960s segregation that is perfectly staged for young students just starting to learn about this hideous part of American history. Those more familiar with these tales of integration will leave this picture feeling more like a routine review.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.