Every now and again you come across a documentary that is slick, sophisticated, and really makes you think. Freedom Riders has got to be one of the most professional, and thought provoking films I have come across in recent years.
Almost one hundred years after United States President Abraham Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamation, formally abolished slavery, and despite the increasing influential Civil Rights Movement, in the south of the country, racial segregation still ruled the land. As racial tension mounted, the current government in power – the Kennedy administration – were far too preoccupied with other matters, and remained indifferent on the subject.
However things changed on May 4th of 1961, when a group of 13 college-age students boarded a bus in Washington DC heading for New Orleans (near the bottom of the country). These Freedom Riders planned to challenge the segregation policies with a simple plan of attack – they would sit white and coloured people next to each other on the bus, have an African American rider sitting at the front of the bus (which was traditionally a “white only” area), and then at each stop, they would try and use the “whites only” toilets and shops. If faced with violence or abuse, they would just stand their ground, not retaliated, and just pray that they wouldn’t get hurt. Although the federal law specified that segregation at bus stations was not allowed – at a state level, these laws were still in place. Although the first wave of riders were fearless, and weren’t expecting a huge amount of issues (the worst situation they could foresee was jail for a few months), they were proven very wrong once they arrived in Alabama, where they were set upon by an organised mob, working alongside the local police (unofficially of course). After the first wave of Freedom Riders were so badly wounded that they decided to cancel the mission – a next bunch of youngsters jumped on the Greyhound and Trailways buses and continued the journey.
Despite the bashings, buses being set on fire, US officials being attacked, hundreds of people being put in jail for just sitting in “white only” or
“coloured only” seat, and with no support from local police or government – in an incredibly important chapter of American history, and a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement, this film is an inspirational testament to the power of non-violence and sheer determination for human rights, in which a determined youth movement sucessfully changed the course of history. These people forced the federal government to jump in, and almost “trick” and force the local and state governments in the South to catch up with the rest of the country.
This film wasn’t preachy or self-righteous – it just laid out the facts and let the audience decide. It was incredibly unbiased, with interviews from the Freedom Riders themselves, but also included interviews from people from the left and right wing side of the government.
Personally, I feel like this is one of the best ways to make a documentary. The use of interviews, archival footage, dramatisations, and graphics was slick and faultless – and you were really glued to the screen for the full 113 minutes of run time.
This is obviously a very important part of American history – and it’s so good to see that the film-makers treated the topic with so much respect, research and hard work. This would have been a hard film to make – but they have really made a film that is both educational, and also forces the viewer to do their own research, and really get motivated to learn more about the era and the history, despite the fact that it’s gruesome and horrendous at times. I cannot recommend this film highly enough – another truly great documentary!