The filmmaker Stanley Nelson has a stunning accomplishment in “Freedom Riders,” a documentary that chronicles a crucial, devastating episode of the civil rights movement, an episode whose gruesome visuals impinged on the perception of American liberty around the world. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides, the film (to be shown Monday on PBS) is a story of ennobled youth and noxious hatred, of decided courage and inexplicable brutality. In May 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality sought to challenge the segregation of interstate travel on public transport and sent forth activists, both black and white, and many of them students, on a bus journey through the South, where they were received with violence that law enforcers refused to tame.
It is hard to imagine a feature film conveying the events with a more vivid sense of drama or suspense. The commentators — the riders themselves, historians, politicians, civil rights leaders — have mostly been chosen for an uncanny ability to convey the tension in a present-tense reconstruction. Blowhards and professors of the obvious have been excised, and the archival photographs and news clips have been edited down to those most affecting and lyrical.
The story told begins like this: On Mother’s Day in 1961 two buses departed Atlanta headed for Birmingham, Ala. CORE leaders assumed that the activists would confront hostility, but they had no idea what would follow. The first bus was burned in Anniston, Ala. Occupants of the second forged on with no knowledge of what their compatriots had just encountered. The riders possessed a fearlessness that leads you to imagine that even if cellphone technology had existed and had allowed them to be warned, little about their plans would have changed.
Birmingham, at the time among the most racially divided cities in the country, was not poised to greet the riders neutrally. The city was ruled by the notorious Bull Connor, a police commissioner economically described here by Julian Bond, a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as “some kind of psychopath, rabid on the subject of race.” Connor had allotted the hordes of Klansmen intent on disrupting the arrival of the buses 15 minutes to beat, maim and burn the passengers, with the promise that none would be arrested.
One of the most bizarrely compelling figures to emerge in the film is John Patterson, then Alabama’s governor, who had to be strong-armed by the federal government into offering protection to the riders. He speaks to the cameras now with an oddly casual air and no obvious sense of contrition. He says that he was afraid of Connor. He was also a political opportunist who had won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1958 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. His opponent, George Wallace, had lost with the support of the N.A.A.C.P. (Wallace’s segregationist politics flourished as a result of this defeat.)
“Freedom Riders” implicitly and ably conveys the powerlessness of positive law in the face of a toxic cultural emotionalism. By the time the freedom riders had begun their efforts, the Supreme Court had twice handed down decisions — first in 1946, in Morgan v. Virginia, and 14 years later in Boynton v. Virginia — declaring segregation on buses and trains traveling between states a violation of interstate commerce laws. But Jim Crow traditions meant an ugly disregard for what was already mandated.
By the fall of 1961, 400 Americans had participated in the freedom rides, facing attack and arrest. That September the Interstate Commerce Commission delivered its order to end segregation on buses and in railway stations, and the civil rights movement had an enormous triumph. Now so too does this genre of documentary film. It is easy to imagine “Freedom Riders,” attaining the status of “Eyes on the Prize,” the multipart film on the history of the civil rights movement that has been an essential component of American history classes for years. “Freedom Riders” should have an equally long life.Continue reading the main story
The students are understandably skeptical, excruciatingly contemptuous. From where they sit, slumped and hunched, some with their backs literally turned away from the front of the room, Erin looks like the stranger she is. She’s an interloper, a do-gooder, a visitor from another planet called Newport Beach, and the class sees through her as if she were glass because the writer and director Richard LaGravenese makes sure that we do too.
Funny how point of view works. If so many films about so-called troubled teenagers come off as little more than exploitation, it’s often because the filmmakers are not really interested in them, just their dysfunction. “Freedom Writers,” by contrast, isn’t only about an amazingly dedicated young teacher who took on two extra jobs to buy supplies for her students (to supplement, as Mr. LaGravenese carefully points out, a $27,000 salary); it’s also, emphatically, about some extraordinary young people. In this respect Mr. LaGravenese, whose diverse writing credits include “The Ref” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” appears to have taken his egalitarian cue from the real Erin Gruwell, who shares author credit with her students in their 1999 book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a collection of their journal entries.
Mr. LaGravenese keeps faith with the multiple perspectives in the book, which includes Ms. Gruwell’s voice and those of her students, whose first-person narratives pay witness to the effects of brutalizing violence, dangerous tribal allegiances and institutional neglect. The film pops in on Erin and her increasingly troubled relationship with her husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), and there’s a really lovely scene between the two that finds them talking ruefully over a bottle of wine about the divide between fantasy and reality in marriage, a divide one partner tries to bridge and the other walks away from. But while we keep time with Erin, we also listen to the teenagers, several of whom tell their stories in voice-over.
Among the most important of those stories is that of Eva (the newcomer April Lee Hernandez), whose voice is among the first we hear in the film. Through quick flashbacks and snapshot scenes of the present, Eva’s young life unfolds with crushing predictability. From her front steps, this 9-year-old watches as her cousin is gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Later her father is arrested; she’s initiated into a gang. One day, while walking with a friend under the glorious California sun, a couple of guys pull up in a car and start firing in their direction. Eva dodges bullets and embraces violence because she knows nothing else; she hates everyone, including her white teacher, because no one has ever given her a reason not to.
In time Eva stops hating Erin, though the bullets keep coming. It’s a hard journey for both women, one that includes other students, most of whom are played by actors who look too old for their roles and are nonetheless very affecting. None of these actors are outstanding, but two are memorable: the singer Mario, who plays an angry drug dealer, Andre, and another newcomer, Jason Finn, whose big, soft, moon face swells with fury and vulnerability as a homeless teenager named Marcus.
Mr. LaGravenese isn’t a natural-born filmmaker, but he’s a smart screenwriter whose commitment to characters like Marcus makes up for the rough patches in his directing. Like Ms. Swank, who shares the screen comfortably with her younger co-stars, he gives credit where credit is due.
“Freedom Writers” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There is some gun violence and adult language.
StarsHilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
Running Time2h 3m
GenresBiography, Crime, Drama
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
The headline for a film review in Weekend on Friday about “Freedom Writers” misidentified the California city in which the movie is set. It is Long Beach, not Los Angeles.
The listing of credits omitted a producer. Danny DeVito was a producer, along with Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg.