Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stanley Nelson discusses his new documentary film, ‘Freedom Riders’

Director Stanley Nelson
“What the civil rights movement did,” reflected documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, was to force people “to make a choice.  You couldn’t ignore it anymore.  It was stuff that was on the front page, it was in your face, you had to choose: which way are you going?”

Nelson, whose new film, Freedom Riders, was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 5, made his comments in a panel discussion following the screening. 

Other participants in the discussion were civil-rights activists Joan Mulholland of Arlington County and Dion Diamond and the Rev. Reginald Green of Washington, who were among the original “freedom riders” of 1961.  The panel was moderated by Larry Sabato of the UVA Center for Politics.

Effective engagement of the news media
In response to a question from Sabato, Nelson pointed out how the civil rights movement’s strategy of engaging the news media was slow in emerging but eventually “incredibly effective.”

During the 1961 freedom rides, he said, “the media’s role really changed.”

When the freedom rides started in May of that year, “there was no media coverage except the black press,” such as the Washington/Baltimore Afro-American and Johnson Publications (Ebony and Jet), which each had a “representative on the ride.”

The rest of the news media, however, “totally ignored the rides and there was no media coverage at all,” Nelson said, which caused difficulty for him and his team of filmmakers, because there was a dearth of archival material from the early part of the freedom ride phenomenon.

What changed “by the end of the freedom rides,” he explained, was that there were “400 people coming in [and] that was a huge news story, so you had the nightly news and you have all the print journalists and camera people there.”

By mid-summer, the news media was reacting to the civil rights movement’s strategy “to hold the front page” for at least five days at a time, to keep people’s attention on the issue so that it became “impossible to ignore.”

Making a choice
In researching the freedom rides, Nelson explained, “one of the fascinating things that we found making the film was that” in the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi), “there was a very small percentage of people of white people who supported integration -- a tiny percentage [of] 1, 2, 3 percent.”

At the other extreme, he said, “there was another small percentage of people who were violent racists, maybe 10 [or] 15 percent.”

That meant, he explained, that “the rest of the people, 80-85 percent, just were able to kind of go on, and ignore what was going on” – hence his remark that the civil rights movement, in general, and the freedom rides, in particular, forced people to make a choice about which way to go.

How ‘Freedom Riders’ became a film
After the panel ended, Nelson told me that the Freedom Riders project came to him while he “was working on a film for ‘American Experience’ called Wounded Knee.”

The producers “called and said that they had purchased this book, Freedom Riders by Ray Arsenault, and would I take a look at it [because] they’re thinking of making it into a film.”

Nelson “said yes without even getting the book,” because he “knew a little bit about the story and realized it would be great, so that’s how that happened.”

Making the film took about 18 months from start to finish, Nelson explained.  It will be broadcast on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series in May 2011, “which is the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides.” 

Currently, Nelson is showing Freedom Riders at film festivals and also at schools, including a screening at Charlottesville High School earlier this month.  In addition, some college students will be recreating the freedom rides next year as part of a fiftieth anniversary commemoration that will also promote the film.

Video from the Virginia Film Festival's panel discussion about Freedom Riders, sponsored by the UVA Center for Politics, is below.

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Examiner.com on November 18, 2010.)

Video, Part I - Recorded at the Culbreth Theatre on the grounds of the University of Virginia on Friday, November 5, 2010.

Larry Sabato introduces the panel:

Video, Part II

Video, Part III

Video, Part IV, in which Larry Sabato poses the question about the news media:

Video, Part V:

Video, Part VI
, in which the Reverend Reginald Green -- who in junior high was the lead singer in a group that included Marvin Gaye -- leads the crowd in a rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved":
As noted above, Freedom Riders, the film, will be aired on PBS stations as part of the "American Experience" series in May 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

NOTE:  In 2009, the UVA Center for Politics sponsored a screening and panel discussion at the Virginia Film Festival about another milestone in the civil rights era called Locked Out:  The Fall of Massive Resistance.  That panel included former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and several survivors of the shutdown of government schools in the Commonwealth:  Rita Moseley of Prince Edward County, Donald Martin of Charlottesville, Michael Jones of Arlington County, Delores Brown of Norfolk, and Faye Coleman Hoes of Warren County.

Update, May 10, 2011:  PBS has announced that Stanley Nelson's documentary film, Freedom Riders, will be broadcast on public television stations beginning Monday, May 16, 2011, as part of the American Experience series.  Check your local listings.

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