Freedom Riders may not break any new cinematic ground, but it’s a great story, impossible to dislike, in a well made package.
Get on the Bus
The Freedom Riders scored the first unquestionable victory in the Civil Rights movement. Or so says the movie, choosing its words carefully to balance its own subject with the importance of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
A handful of people volunteered to ride public buses – Greyhound and Trailways – into the “deep south.” The integrated volunteers would challenge segregation laws at bus stations and on buses along the way, calling attention to the unjust laws of the south as they found them. The trip was to end in New Orleans.
The riders made it as far as Birmingham, where their bus was sabotaged and the riders were beaten and nearly burned. Afraid but undaunted, they wanted to continue, but had trouble finding another bus driver willing to take them. A representative of the president and the attorney general – John and Bobby Kennedy – came down and escorted the riders, via airplane, to New Orleans where they could declare “mission accomplished.”
But the mission wasn’t unquestionably “accomplished,” and other riders were inspired to follow, lest those who acted violently think they had won. Many were arrested in Mississippi, which led to more people coming to Mississippi to get arrested and jailed along with the other riders. It all led, eventually to government intervention in desegregating bus stations in the south.
A World Away
Freedom Riders is very moving, as all documentaries on civil rights seem to be. The storytelling is gripping, especially in the first third of the film before you’re sure how it will all end.
What’s not to like? Freedom Riders uses all the latest styles in documentary production – flying stills, quiet foley on M.O.S. historical footage, talking heads, mood-setting and era-specific music.
Best of all, this is a story that can be told by participants who are still alive, about a time that feels a world away from ours. I was fortunate enough to see the film with a roomful of high school students who were treated to a speech and Q&A afterwards by Congressman John Lewis, one of the riders featured in the film. It’s hard to imagine that segregation, to those high school students, is ancient history. The United States already has an African-American president, which makes the ugliness in Freedom Riders all the more amazing.