Making Progressive Movies Gripping: ‘Freedom Riders’ Tonight on PBS

When the Sundance Institute’s Film Forward festival, which is screening movies in fourteen locations around the world in an effort to spark cross-cultural understanding, swung by Washington last week, I asked a couple of the filmmakers how they overcome one of the most basic problems in political filmmaking: how do you get a message across without getting preachy or boring? Peter Bratt, who made La Mission, said part of the problem was overcoming the idea that independent movies were inherently boring or more studios than they were entertaining: “We get our films from Wal Mart and Target, so to have access to different kinds of movies and to develop a taste for them is important.” And Cherien Dabis, who wrote and directed Amreeka, said she’d found the politics of her movie in the personal story. “By the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to do something about media representations of Arabas, but I didn’t know how,” she said. “I moved to DC after my undergrad to change the world from here…It turns out there was more truth in fiction.”

That night, I went to a screening of Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders, which airs tonight at 9pm on PBS stations everywhere, which is a reminder of a third way. It’s easy to make documentaries that rely on cable and C-SPAN clips or stunts. But sometimes you can get a more powerful narrative by reporting the hell out of it:

Freedom Riders starts slowly, but it’s very, very good, and Nelson does two things extremely well in it. First, he builds drama out of institutional conflict, drawing out the sense that the Congress of Racial Equality needed a bold move to put it on par with other civil rights organizations, and the extent to which James Farmer and CORE were less prepared than Southern preachers and Fisk University students for the extremity of the violence the riders would face in Alabama. He also is extremely tough on both the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., something Nelson said was the part of the movie that most impressed Chinese audiences on the Film Forward tour. The audience I was watching the movie with about died at a clip of Robert Kennedy declaring, after asking the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce bus desegregation, “There are many areas of the United States where there is no prejudice whatsoever.”

And second, he draws out the extent to which white Southerners used defense of segregation as a rational to behave like violent, raging children. I’m amazed that Nelson got former Alabama governor James Patterson, whose cravenness nearly allowed a white mob to burn down First Baptist Church with 1,500 black residents of his state inside, to do an interview today. Patterson must have no idea how unreflective he seems when he absolves himself of the violence in Birmingham by saying “Bull Connor never supported me for governor. I never liked the man…He was so unpredictable.” He’s still the same man who emptied out the dictionary to insist that the Freedom Riders had baited the white people who were beating and bombing them past endurance, saying the purpose of the Rides was “to incense them and enrage them and provoke them into acts of violence.”

It’s equally incredible to watch Janie Forsyth McKinney talk about what it was like to see the men she knew as a child gang up to firebomb the Greyhound bus that had been attacked in Birmingham, and attacked so it would stop where it did in a trap. “It was like a scene from hell. It was the worst suffering I’d ever heard,” she said, explaining the moment she decided to help the Freeom Riders, even at considerable long-term cost. “I took her a glass of water. I washed her face, I held her, I gave her water to drink. And as soon as I thought she was going to be okay, I picked out somebody else.” She was twelve, but she was the adult in her family and her community at that moment:

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.