Direct action groups are often seen within larger social movements as being too demanding, too naive and ultimately too annoying to contribute to the larger purpose at hand. But few people ever opened a newspaper to see a photo of someone writing a letter to Congress or attending a silent auction and felt a call to action. History may be written by the letter writers, but it's made by people who didn't have the good sense to be patient and stay put.
Freedom Riders delves into the amazing constellation of events that transformed a group of twelve scrappy activists, barely on anyone's radar, to a phenomenon that over the course of six months made the world hold its breath while fundamental political, social and cultural ideologies were put to the test in the hills of Alabama and Mississippi.
Director Stanley Nelson (The Murder of Emmett Till, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple) looks at the role international bad publicity (an outraged German news program proclaims: "In the land of Ernest Hemingway, some still struggle for basic rights!"') played in getting a reaction from President Kennedy, the different ethical issues covering the events the black members of the press faced, the collusion of the KKK with police and members of the national media, activists' strategies for communication in a time before Facebook, different reactions within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) over Martin Luther King Jr's decision not to join the Freedom Ride and the bizarre political powerplay between the Safety Commissioner and Governor of Alabama that (inadvertently) saved hundreds of lives.But for my money, the best anecdotes in the film are those that showcase John Seigenthaler's (Attorney General's Robert Kennedy's assistant) personal awe of Diane Nash. Nash, a leader in SNCC, led the second round of Riders after the first wave had been beaten so severely they were convinced they would die if they continued. One imagines the (now very comic) scene of the entire Kennedy White House in a lather trying to negotiate with the Riders to cease their operations, expecting to be put on the phone with a hardened Teamster-type and instead getting the demure but steely Nash.
This film also provides an interesting prism through which to examine Fair Use regulations. Nelson has made six films that wound up screening on PBS, each casting a spotlight on little known or regretful moments in American history. Nelson does so with photographs and newsreel footage that is rare and astronomically expensive to license for commercial use. Because of these costs, only film-makers backed by institutions like PBS can access these artifacts and tell these stories without resorting to puppet reenactments.
Since television is considered too bureaucratic and narrow in focus to appeal to film-makers trying push the boundaries of non-fiction storytelling, there exists a chasm in the documentary world between the film-makers who view themselves as artists first and film-makers who desperately want to tell these stories now while some of the participants are still alive to share their firsthand accounts. Ultimately the real losers in this battle are viewers, whose lives could be enriched by further understanding how our world has been shaped and where it's going. History is most accurately reflected when as many voices as possible get involved in the telling of stories.As long as I'm on a soapbox, it's also draconian United States copyright laws that keep touchstone films like the Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize out of reach of any audience. I, however, gleefully pirated Eyes footage for my college film, paying tribute to Nash.
Freedom Riders is a real life David and Goliath story that will exhilarate all audiences. However, it's in that very exhilaration that also exists a painful reminder of just how cut off we are from our own history because of greed-driven, fundamentally anti-democratic protectionist laws.
Freedom Riders is screening January 21-31 at the Sundance Film Festival.