'Freedom Riders' a great documentary
by Michael Sragow
May 8, 2010
It was an honor for me simply to congratulate writer-director Stanley
Nelson and hand the mike to him for a Q&A after the Maryland Film
Festival screening of "Freedom Riders" on Friday at MICA's Brown Center.
Nelson made this movie for PBS' "American Experience," but he turned
it into an American epic.
Using eloquent eyewitnesses and straight-talking historians as a
stirring group narrator, he chronicles how the youngest members of
the American Civil Rights Movement interrupted and then risked their
lives to integrate interstate buses and bus stations throughout the
Deep South in 1961. He traces the tremors that their seismic act of
bravery set off in the Movement and national and international
politics. This mostly-student body compelled Movement statesman like
Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep pace with their bold new adoption of
his non-violent ethos. The Freedom Riders forced the Kennedy
administration, which had been concentrating on the Cold War, to put
domestic freedom near the top of its agenda.
Nelson pulls all this together in a harrowing, rousing, multifaceted
narrative. He's a virtuoso at editing together interviews and
archival materials. Every now and then, one of America's great
stories gets told by one of its great filmmakers. That has happened
with "Freedom Riders."
Wendell Pierce, the actor who portrays the irresistible trombonist on
"Treme," attended the screening. He told me afterward, "It's hard to
tell with Stanley Nelson which comes first -- the journalism and the
history or the moviemaking and the storytelling." That's how it
should be. There's talk of a theatrical opening in July before PBS
broadcasts it in January.
Would you go see this if it opened at the Harbor East or the Charles,
even though PBS will air it? "Freedom Riders" may have been made for
TV, but it has a vision that overflows even the big screen. Movie
distributors and exhibitors need to know that audiences will come out
for milestone films like these. I hope you say "yes" -- and really do
buy a ticket for "Freedom Riders" if it plays in theaters.