1968. Martin Luther King Jr. is shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, in Riceville, Iowa, primary school teacher Jane Elliot carries out a radical exercise in her classroom. She divides her students into two groups on the basis of one arbitrary, physical property: Do they have blue eyes, or brown? Elliot declares those who happen to have blue eyes to be superior and more intelligent. She grants them privileges that she denies to those who are brown-eyed. They are condemned as inferior, less intelligent and lower-qualified.
20 years later, and Elliot has dedicated her life to the fight against prejudice, ignorance and racism. Her audience is now much broader. It includes teachers, students, firemen, and even the entire staff of a bank. But her message remains the same.
For many white people, Elliott’s workshop is the first time they experience the feeling of belonging to a condemned group. They become acquainted with discrimination in the same way that women, people with a different skin color, or the disabled experience discrimination in wider society. Within the space of 15 minutes, Jane Elliott succeeds in creating a realistic microcosm of modern society, with all its unspoken rules and assumptions.
As was established in the controversial “Milgram” experiment - in which participants were instructed to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience - even those who are uncomfortable with society’s rules find themselves drawn into the system. What begins as a game turns into a cruel reality, driving some participants to erupt in intense and unforeseen outbursts of emotion.