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Monday, August 29, 2016

New Local Documentary Profiles Rutland Basketball Racism

Posted By on Mon, Aug 29, 2016 at 4:03 PM

click to enlarge Divided by Diversity film poster. - COURTESY OF DUANE CARLETON
  • Courtesy of Duane Carleton
  • Divided by Diversity film poster.
In 2010, five high school basketball players from the Bronx were accepted at Rutland’s Mount St. Joseph Academy, a small Catholic school beset by flagging attendance numbers and a sports program with a recent history of athletic futility. For the student-athletes, the move four hours north from the bleak Edenwald housing project was both a blessing and a curse.

According to an intertitle in Divided by Diversity, a new documentary from local musician and filmmaker Duane Carleton, between 2009 and 2012, the entire state of Vermont had less than half the murders, less than a quarter the robberies and only a third more assaults than Edenwald during the same period.

But what the Bronx natives, all of whom were black, hadn’t bargained for was a barrage of racism, both veiled and overt. As the Mount St. Joseph team became increasingly accomplished on the hardwood, ugly racial barbs on social media escalated to outright hostility at games. At one game, fans started a racist “KFC” chant; at another, two people showed up in gorilla and banana costumes.

The MSJ basketball team went 22-2 during the 2011-2012 season and won the Division II state championship, despite the school’s having a total enrollment of only 92 students. But, as Divided by Diversity documents, there was no celebratory banquet for the team that had rescued MSJ from the basketball cellar.

Championship jackets were distributed to the players without ceremony. It took almost two years for the title banner to be raised in the rafters. Head coach Mark Benetatos, who instilled in his team a Branch Rickey-like policy of nonconfrontational dignity, unceremoniously resigned in May 2012 following what he called a “witch hunt” for his role in bringing the out-of-state students to MSJ.

Carleton’s film consists almost entirely of sit-down interviews with players, coaches and others directly involved with the team. What’s lacking is a sense of place. We’re told about the disparities between the bucolic backdrop of Mount St. Joseph Academy and the harsher realities of the Edenwald projects, but that contrast isn’t shown visually. Without much cutaway footage, the use of elliptical quick-fades to black in individual interviews is often disconcerting.

But the singular focus on talking heads also gives ample screen time to those with direct knowledge of the events of that championship season. Former Rutland Herald sportswriter Chuck Clarino is perhaps the film’s most eloquent contextual voice. He points out that other private schools in Vermont have recruited black players over the years without drawing the vitriol that surrounded the MSJ team.

Matt Sanborn, the MSJ team captain during the championship run, more succinctly addresses the questionable distinction between parents who took exception to New Yorkers cutting into the playing time of their native Vermonter sons and those whose objections were based on the color of the players’ skin.

“These kids who happen to be African American are the ones that we’re focused on, and yet I’m not from Rutland. I didn’t grow up here, per se. I grew up in Georgia,” says Sanborn, who is white. “I came to Rutland, Vermont, and I played basketball. I’m doing the same exact thing they’re doing, and yet they’re the ones that get the heat, and I’m considered a local kid.”

Carleton will be present at the premiere of Divided by Diversity on Wednesday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Village Picture Shows in Manchester Center. Tickets are $10 for all ages.

One can only hope that screenings in other parts of the state will follow — including in Rutland.

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Luke Baynes

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