PARK CITY — Overcoming the limitations of a familiar format thanks to the sheer heroism of its tale, “Freedom Riders” digs deep into a critical chapter of the civil rights struggle and brings it to life in a plain but stirring way. Though produced for PBS and destined for a good reception there, it might hold its own in a specialty theatrical run, particularly as we approach the 50th anniversary of the events chronicled.
The doc is weakest in the first half hour, where it’s unclear we’ll be learning anything new: Countless shots of “Whites Only” signs are accompanied by a soundtrack sometimes approaching “Unsolved Mysteries” territory, and although hints are dropped about the scope of what’s to come, the film doesn’t quite generate an emotional interest equal to its moment. It’s almost as if, like the small group of black and white young men and women boarding two buses in May of 1961, it expects their symbolic violation of bus segregation laws to achieve their aims quickly and with minimum fuss.
That changes dramatically when one of those buses is prevented from reaching its destination. As it recounts the Anniston, Alabama attack that left one Greyhound bus a burnt husk and its passengers beaten, the film’s account becomes increasingly vivid.
After hearing about the federal intervention required to get those first protesters to safety, the decision of a second wave of students to pick up the torch is stirring — all the more so because these riders, Southerners from Tennessee, were so clear-eyed about the physical threat of racism that each signed his or her will before getting on board.
Interviews with the riders move the action forward, but much of the film’s gravity comes from those who were observers of or reactors to their acts. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s assistant John Seigenthaler, a middleman between federal and state authorities who wound up getting attacked himself, not only explains behind-the-scenes negotiations but conveys the awed disbelief with which the world’s most powerful men watched the boldness of a few nameless activists.
Those young idealists have their moments in these new interviews, as Diane Nash does when she smiles simply and declares, “We were fresh troops.” But overall, the ordinariness of their presentation here may be what makes their story so powerful.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: A Firelight Media Production for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Director: Stanley Nelson
Screenwriter: Stanley Nelson
Book by Raymond Arsenault
Executive producers: Mark Samels
Producers: Stanley Nelson, Laurens Grant
Director of photography: Robert Shepard
Music: Tom Phillips
Editors: Lewis Erskine, Aljernon Tunsil
Sales Agent: Jim Dunford at WGBH
No MPAA rating, 112 minutes