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Civil Rights Documentaries

February 02, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. She wrote about social issue documentaries in an earlier post.)

FreedomRidersposter_72 The next few years will see the fiftieth anniversary of a number of watershed events in the civil rights movement. Two documentary films just released remind us of those troubled but stirring times.

Freedom Riders, which premiered last week at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, captures what director Stanley Nelson calls the real beginning of the civil rights movement. "Before the freedom riders," Nelson told attendees after the packed screening, "there were isolated actions to break segregation laws in the South, but the freedom riders brought people together from all over the country -- black and white, old and young."

Thirteen young people -- seven African Americans and six whites -- boarded two commercial buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways, in May 1961, in a protest organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They were headed from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, and hoped to pressure authorities in the deep South into upholding federal anti-segregation laws as they applied to public facilities. Many of the riders would be severely beaten, while others were jailed at Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm prison. Facing mounting international criticism, the Kennedy administration eventually would call out the National Guard to protect the riders from violent mobs in Alabama and Mississippi.

By summer's end, the number of freedom riders would swell to over four hundred and their courage and persistence would finally bear fruit when the Interstate Commerce Commission, in September, stepped in to enforce existing federal laws against segregation in interstate bus travel, handing a hard-won victory to the movement.

"The message of [the film]," said Nelson, "is the power of individuals to make change." The film also highlights the leadership role of a number of women during those terrible weeks, most notably Diane Nash. Nash, a student at Fisk University in Nashville and one of the founders, in 1960, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), picked up the gauntlet when, battered and frightened, the original group of freedom riders could not continue. Refusing to heed a Kennedy aide's pleas for a "cooling off" period, Nash took responsibility for the protest and led a group of riders from Birmingham, Alabama, to their final destination in Jackson, Mississippi.

Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, framed a panel discussion earlier that day on "Speaking Truth to Power" with remarks about the potential impact of documentaries to influence and shape the debate around specific human rights issues. "The most significant democratic transitions of the twentieth century were peaceful revolutions led by citizens -- the amassed power of people and ideas -- coupled with the traditional tools of advocacy, rule of law, and media," said LaMarche. Over the past two decades, he noted, the grassroots constituency -- the essential partner in human rights campaigns -- has been distracted. LaMarche told those in attendance that documentary films about human rights issues can help rebuild and reenergize that constituency. "Film can help support a movement and connect citizens to activism. Independent media makes it possible for people to speak for themselves."

That same spirit was on display earlier in the month at the Tribeca Cinemas in lower Manhattan, where folks who braved the cold were treated to a showing of Soundtrack for a Revolution, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. The film, which had premiered at the Tribeca International Film Festival, was one of six short-listed documentaries shown over the weekend, along with Which Way Home, Food Inc., Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, The Cove, and Under Our Skin. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund sponsored the mini-festival, and the sold-out screening was graced by the presence of Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, both of whom got a standing ovation from the crowd.

In a Q&A after the screening, Belafonte, a presence in the film, said that his role in the civil rights movement -- the "revolution" of the film's title -- "was to bring in other performers to support what was going on."

As an activist and a singer, Belefonte was a particularly appropriate spokesperson for the film, which tells the history, through music, of that struggle -- the songs and hymns sung in churches, in jails, and on picket lines. In grainy black-and-white footage, we see activists, folk singers, and just plain folks leading verses of anthems such as "Wade in the Water" and "We Shall Not Be Moved" -- traditional songs adopted by the movement and given new meaning. We see, and sometimes clearly hear, marchers singing and clapping as they jostle down the menacing streets of a Southern city.

Guy Carawan, who introduced "We Shall Overcome" to the student leaders at SNCC, is shown performing during that time (and in a recent interview with his wife, the singer Candie Carawan). In the film he talks about the song's evolution from hymn to union ballad to civil rights anthem. A number of contemporary singers are also featured in the film, interpreting some of those old protest songs in a modern studio setting.

"We wanted to make sure youth in particular knew the history, and music was a way to do that," said producer Joslyn Barnes.

Soundtrack for a Revolution is a moving documentary filled with lesser-known moments of courage and determination. One of them involves sisters Lynda Lowery and Joanne Bland, now in their 50s, who were children when they participated in the bloody "children's march" across Selma's Pettus Bridge -- an action in which Lynda was severely clubbed by a policeman.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the struggle for civil rights without recalling the fourteen-hour Eyes on the Prize series produced by the late Henry Hampton and his Blackside film company. With the support of a number of foundations, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965) aired on PBS in 1987, followed by Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985) in 1990, and were widely hailed at the time as one of the most important retellings of the civil rights era.

The rest of the story is not as well known. As the rights to original songs and archival materials used in the films began to expire, copyright issues became an obstacle to the series' continued dissemination. Eventually, a grassroots campaign led by media access organization Downhill Battle (now the Participatory Culture Foundation) tapped into growing frustration over the fact that Hampton's seminal series was unavailable and, in a marriage of media and activism that LaMarche might applaud, the "Eyes on the Screen" campaign was launched in 2005 to raise awareness of the copyright issue. Eventually, the Ford Foundation and the Gilder Foundation paid to re-license the music, archival video footage, and photographs featured in the series, as well as for needed post-production work; the PBS re-release of Parts I and II, in 2006 and 2008, included an educational outreach campaign funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The series is now available on DVD through Blackside.

All these films serve to educate us about a painful shared history and remind us that the struggle for equal rights and opportunity in America is far from over. How to advance that work in the twenty-first century is the challenge that today's young activists have to solve. And, as these films make clear, documentary filmmakers can be important partners in the search for reconciliation.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by Pam McAllister  |   February 04, 2010 at 01:24 AM

Thank you for writing this review and pointing to the importance of keeping this history alive. It's easy -- even for those of us who were alive then -- to forget how steep that uphill climb was.

Here's hoping that more of us boomers will reactivate (as many already are) and -- together with "today's young activists" -- keep making history in the 21st century. We have a lot of years left in us, plenty of time to shake things up (again).

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