A small Cajun town in rural Louisiana holds an annual exhibition football game between the majority Black public school and majority White private school, called the Tee Cotton Bowl. This meditative small town portrait examines racial segregation and a range of perspectives on the game and whether it should continue to be celebrated as it has been.
Ville Platte, Louisiana is a dying town and one of the poorest in the state. Despite this, a strong current of optimism persists and ramps up around the yearly Tee Cotton Bowl game between the town's two schools. The one-week event that culminates in a friendly high school football game is regarded as a precious tradition, particularly to the older residents who remember Ville Platte's history of racial segregation. However the game also starkly underscores Ville Platte's racial divisions and educational inequalities that persist to this day.
Jennifer Vidrine, both the first female and first Black mayor of the town, Tim Fontenot, the white founder of the Tee Cotton Bowl, Grace Vidrine Sibley, the first desegregant of Ville Platte High School in 1965, and others all weigh in with their respective insights on the town's past in relation to the Tee Cotton Bowl. Within living memory lurks ugly memories, but the game is seen as a hopeful beginning of sorts.
FILMMAKER'S STATEMENT: "We probably don't need any more football documentaries. But Gavin P. Sullivan and I were invested in how this game tells a story about historical and present-day segregation in Ville Platte (french for 'flat town'). Our central question was: Is this game a good thing? The Tee Cotton Bowl started in 2000, between Ville Platte High and Sacred Heart. The schools are in different divisions, so the game is an exhibition. It's marketed as a sort of 'racial unity' event for Ville Platte. Pope John Paul II even blessed the game!
But to understand why these two schools are still racially segregated, let's look back at Ville Platte's history. 1965, Grace Vidrine Sibley, a 15-year-old Black girl, de-segregated Ville Platte high where there was even an assassination attempt on her. 1967-70, students at the all-Black public school were forced to say goodbye to their beloved Black teachers, and move to Ville Platte High, while most of these Black teachers would not be rehired there. As was the case everywhere, white flight occurred in Ville Platte.
The Tee Cotton Bowl was a hit from the start. It was the one annual event in town that could bring both Black and white people together, even if just to root for their respective teams. However, problems began to surface at VPHS. 2008, Ville Platte High almost shuts down, due to the years of neglect. Gervis Lafleu, a Black school board member at the time was quoted: 'I think a lot of our people in the white community feel it is unfair that they have to pay for a school their children do not attend.' Emergency funds came through for VPHS, and repairs were done. But the story is a reminder of deeper divisions by race and class that still reside in Ville Platte.
Having two racially segregated teams play a football game is not transformative, but the festivities in the week leading up to the game do bring both sides together in ways that don't happen organically. There's no doubt some in Ville Platte find it difficult to move past surface level discussions around racism, and question the lasting impact of the game. Which brings me back to: Is this game a good thing? Does it promote unity? Or just highlight our divide? Ville Platte's longtime radio host, Charlie Manuel, says this: 'Ville Platte - 100 years from now, will not change. The faces will change. But the town? No."
— Bryan Tucker