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Celebrate Black History Month, see great 'Freedom Riders' free at MICA on Thursday

By the end of the week, writer-director-producer Stanley Nelson will know whether his "Freedom Riders" script won this year's Writers Guild of America award for best documentary screenplay (the WGA announces its prizes on Saturday).

Two days before that, on Thursday, February 3, 7 p.m., at the Brown Center at MICA (1301 Mount Royal Avenue), Nelson will host a free screening of this epic film about a turning-point in the American Civil Rights Movement, cosponsored by the Maryland Film Festival.

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Nelson chronicles how the youngest members of the Movement, in 1961, interrupted and then risked their lives to integrate interstate buses and bus stations throughout the Deep South. He traces the tremors that their act of bravery set off in the Movement and in national and international politics. This mostly-student body compelled Movement statesmen 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 forms a stirring group narrator out of Freedom Riders and Movement veterans, eyewitness citizens and reporters, historians and state and government negotiators. It's fitting that this film screens at the Maryland Institute College of Art, because it is a work of art as well as history. The first time you see it, you won't be fully aware of the sophisticated cinematic skills and gut-level "film sense" of Nelson's work in this movie. That's because he has put his talent and craft totally at the service of his story.

It's become routine to call any vibrant historical movie "a tapestry." Nelson's "Freedom Riders" is more like an electric collage. You never consider his camera subjects mere "talking heads." He expertly embeds them in moving and often hair-raising archival footage, newspaper stories and headlines. He creates a headlong ride.

Watching Tanya Hamilton's "Night Catches Us" made me think of Faulkner's great quote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I thought of it again when Nelson cuts between interviews with Freedom Riders and footage of them beaten during the Rides. He makes their heroism immediate and profound.

"Freedom Riders" will air on PBS on Monday, May 16, but it's a real movie. When Nelson uses old-fashioned maps with moving arrows to track the Freedom Riders' progress, the device is as suspenseful as it was in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Don't wait for it on television. See it on MICA's big screen.

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