Cure for Historical Amnesia

In this era that strives (albeit, somewhat precariously at times) for increased awareness, tolerance, and political correctness, it can be easy to lose sight of what and who have gone before us.  It’s not that we’re ungrateful or take things for granted; maybe we haven’t adequately learned our history, or perhaps we’ve simply forgotten it.  Lest we forget, director Stanley Nelson has given us the fascinating and expertly-crafted FREEDOM RIDERS.

Part inspirational history lesson, part taut suspense thriller, FREEDOM RIDERS chronicles the true story of the 1961 non-violent activist movement that sought to challenge the laws and customs of segregation in the American Deep South.  Despite rulings by both the U.S. Supreme Court (outlawing segregation in restaurants and waiting-room terminals serving interstate buses) and the Interstate Commerce Commission (denouncing separate but equal interstate bus travel), segregation in the South remained rampant.  Following on the heels of sit-ins organized against segregated Southern lunch counters, the Freedom Rides were a well-organized attempt to both test the limits and increase awareness of the inequities of interstate bus travel.  Well-dressed and non-confrontational, both black and white, coming from various walks of life, the Freedom Riders boarded buses with a seemingly simple plan of traveling, sitting, and eating together.  Knowing that their actions would undoubtedly spark controversy, few of them could have predicted the outrage and violent reactions that awaited them: horrific beatings, terrifying bus-burnings, and ultimate imprisonment.

Variety’s Andrew Barker accurately describes FREEDOM RIDERS as ‘superb filmic journalism.’  Nelson skillfully combines excellent archival footage with compelling present-day interviews and commentary; several of the contemporary interviewees were themselves the Freedom Riders of a half-century ago.  Included are observations by Congressman John Lewis, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, journalist/author Evan Thomas, and former Alabama Governor James Patterson.  There is also some masterful juxtaposition of the “Leave it to Beaver”-esque sheen of the 1960s etched in our acquired memory with the grim reality of what was actually boiling over in many places: a shocking, vitriol-filled discourse that seemed to blatantly defy the premise of “all men are created equal.”  Today’s audiences will quite simply cringe when hearing the venomous pejoratives spewing from the mouths of some 1960s-era Americans in this film

But what Nelson does best is show the dedication and persistence, despite overwhelming odds, of the Freedom Riders.  The first-person accounts reveal the courage, commitment, and idealism of a fascinating cast of characters that ultimately changed the fabric of our history; one cannot help but develop a reverential respect for these dedicated people who were forging a new path.  Also worth noting is the carefully-structured pace of the film that seems to mirror the momentum of the Freedom Rides movement: as the Freedom Rides become an increasingly perilous undertaking, one can sense the inherent danger, as if in the classic “You Are There” tradition.  It’s impossible not to be drawn into the whole experience, and I found myself wondering how it all was going to end—even though I already knew.  That’s how gripping this film is.

Perhaps less-known today than other turning points of the Civil Rights Movement (Brown v. Board of Education, the arrest of Rosa Parks, the “Little Rock Nine” Crisis, or the 1963 march on Washington), the Freedom Rides are finally being given their due.  Stanley Nelson notes, ‘The lesson of the Freedom Rides is that great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people.  And that sometimes to do any great thing, it’s important that we step out alone.’

When I had the opportunity to see this extraordinary documentary as a member of the Silverdocs Screening Committee, I was completely riveted to the TV set on which I viewed it.  Now, Silverdocs audiences will have the privilege of seeing FREEDOM RIDERS as it should be presented: on the big screen where the film’s outstanding production values can be fully appreciated, with a room full of our fellow human beings, experiencing the inherent powerful emotions—and hopefully engaging in a dialogue that will last far beyond the film’s final frame. Scheduled screenings and tickets.

—  Chuck Willett

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