Bright Road is a rarity on many levels. It is an MGM film that not only has an almost all African-American cast but one that has a positive portrayal of black life. A showcase for both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (in his film debut) Bright Road is a sweet, charming, simple story that really ought to be better-known.
Idealistic first-year teacher Jane Reynolds (Dandridge) faces her fourth-grade class with some trepidation. While her class is filled with children, one catches her eye: C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn). C.T. has made a habit of repeating every grade and is seen by all his other teachers as a "backward child", but Miss Reynolds sees something else: hope.
C.T.'s classmate Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders) is obviously sweet on C.T. and the feeling is mutual (though C.T. won't openly admit it). As the year goes on, C.T. does start improving, letting his natural kindness and curiosity come through. However, a tragedy hits C.T. hard, pushing him back. Mr. Williams (Belafonte), the principal, finds it hard to handle C.T. and it looks like C.T. will go back to old patterns, but a swarm of bees and his love for a particular caterpillar-turned-butterfly open him up once again as he gets back on a bright road.
Bright Road may be a low-budget film, but it's still an MGM film, so apart from the bee attack it does not look cheap by any means. Given how MGM really was more about lavish musicals and elegant settings, Bright Road seems almost an oddity in their catalog. However, the story itself is both universal and specific to the African-American experience.
Of particular note is when Miss Reynolds leads Sunday School (though I wondered how she led both regular and Sunday school, but I digress). C.T. asks a very direct and sadly painful question: if God created us in His image, and created both black and white, why did they not act as brothers? Bright Road cannot give a truthful answer, but through Miss Reynolds' voiceovers we get her doubts and fears about a natural question.
As a side note, Bright Road manages to use voiceover quite well, even at the opening when we get a literal introduction of the three principal players from Dandridge.
Director Gerald Mayer got excellent performances from said three principals. Dorothy Dandridge is not only beautiful but also exceptional as Miss Reynolds, that fear and hesitation blending with her deep concern for C.T. Granted, it is hard to ignore Dandridge's great beauty but she shows herself to be a strong actress with her performance, a deeply moving and respectful portrait of a caring individual.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be both moved and impressed with Philip Hepburn's C.T. He comes across as a regular boy, one who isn't a troublemaker but who is also aware of the limitations others have placed on him. Hepburn makes C.T.'s growth so moving, and you would have to be simply inhuman not to be touched by C.T. and Tanya's budding romance. It is so well-acted by both Hepburn and Randolph that you instantly fall in love with them both.
This film was Belafonte's film debut, and apart from a curiously placed musical number he did quite well as the tough but fair principal. To be fair though, he sings Suzanne so well that while the song itself is pointless to the overall Bright Road plot, you would not want it cut.
Bright Road is not a pure message picture apart from the message that children have interior lives and that one should not dismiss them so quickly. It is quite respectful towards teachers and students, who are not rebellious or cruel but curious, generally well-behaved and capable of genuine kindness.
If anything, Bright Road is a reminder of what talent was squandered due to the foolishness of racism. Dorothy Dandridge showed she was able to play roles of depth and be more than a glamour girl. It is a small but beautiful and gentle film, one where the overt symbolism of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly was not beaten over the head while still being aware of it. I was touched and moved by Bright Road and would recommend it to everyone, especially those who see teaching as an inspirational profession.