'Two Trains Runnin'': Film Review

Two Trains Runnin - Still - H - 2016
Avalon Films
A facinating addition to the growing canon of civil rights-themed documentaries.

Sam Pollard's documentary recounts the events of Freedom Summer, including the rediscovery of two legendary blues musicians.

Sam Pollard’s Two Trains Runnin’ brings a fresh perspective to the well-known, tragic tale of the three civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. By interweaving its account of Freedom Summer with portrait of young white blues fans who traveled to the state, the documentary offers more than the sum of its equally fascinating parts.

The film, narrated by Common, relates how three friends, inspired by the recent rediscoveries of former blues stars Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt, set out from Cambridge, Mass., in search of legendary country blues musician Son House, rumored to be in Mississippi. At roughly the same time, guitarist John Fahey, accompanied by two others, traveled there from California in the hope of finding Skip James, another former blues star who had mysteriously dropped out of sight.

Pollard intersperses those concurring stories with an account of how young activists, many of them white college students, ventured into the Deep South to help register black voters. The volunteers were met with hostility and aggression by the local white population; in the most notorious case, members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer. In a remarkable coincidence, the brutal slayings took place on the very same day the fans found the two musicians, who would each go on to resume his musical career.

The film incorporates archival footage, animated interludes and contemporary interviews with several of the protagonists as well as historians like Taylor Branch. It also features performances of classic blues songs by such contemporary performers as Luther Dickinson, Lucinda Williams and Gary Clark Jr.

The filmmaker’s previous credits include two episodes of the landmark television documentary Eyes on the Prize, so much of the subject matter here is well-trodden territory. But his Two Trains Runnin’ (no relation to the August Wilson play of the same title) benefits from a fresh angle that will particularly appeal to blues aficionados.

Distributor: Avalon Films
Narrator: Common
Director: Samuel D. Pollard
Screenwriter-producer: Benjamin Hedin
Executive producers: Common, Derek Dudley
Director of photography: Natalie Kingston
Editor: Dava Whisenant
Composers: Gary Clark Jr., Christopher North

Not rated, 80 minutes