Tuesday, September 28, 2010

MFF Film Review - Freedom Riders


Director: Stanley Nelson

Through archival footage, interviews and photographs, Freedom Riders documents the Freedom Rides of 1961, when a group of more than 400 people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds challenged the intrastate Jim Crow laws that prohibited black people from traveling on integrated buses throughout the South. Along the way they faced extreme hatred, violence, arrest and imprisonment, but their actions finally prompted the federal government to intercede, forced a change in the segregation laws and ultimately, showed a complacent nation that a simple act could cause change.

The beginning titles of the film announced this was "An American Experience Film", which gave me mixed feelings; I wondered if I would have been able to see this on PBS instead of the theater. That aside, I knew that Freedom Riders was going to be a superior and exhaustively researched documentary because the quality of the American Experience series is outstanding. I truly wasn't disappointed. Director Stanley Nelson (who previously had directed the superb Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) put together an amazing collection of media material and interviews. The photographs documenting this time period are stunning and both visually breathtaking and horrifying at the same time.

Archival news footage served as wonderful backup to the stories the interviewees told. Nelson's subjects included government officials, the riders, journalists and townspeople where the riders stopped, and where some of the most horrifying attacks occurred. More than one of the witnesses were defensive of the violent reaction of the town, while another was moved to tears recalling witnessing a mob scene as child, watching her father and others burn a bus with people trapped inside.

The Freedom Rides became international news as well, due to its violence and lack of action from local, state and federal governments. (A lot of times, local and state law enforcement were in fact the instigators and perpetrators.) Even Eastern Block countries, at the height of the Cold War, were criticizing us for our government's inaction and allowing their citizens to be brutalized; a concept wholly ironic for many reasons, but mainly because we were threatening war with them and criticized those countries for arguably similar treatment of their citizens.

Being a generation removed from this time period, I find it hard to understand how this kind of segregation could have occurred, even in my parents' lifetime, and how acutely non self-actualized our country was regarding this issue. Freedom Riders is an excellent documentation of an important segment of the civil rights movement whose impact on future generations was priceless, and director Stanley Nelson treats the subject with the respect and reverence which this part of history and its participants deserve.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

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