Tag Archives: civil rights documentary

A History of Non Violence


by George Wolf

This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day arrives during a time in history that has worn out the word “unprecedented.” And it is the gravity of these times that only serves to make veteran documentarian Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI ring with more timely urgency.

Mixing some impressive historical footage, newly declassified files and more recent interview perspectives, Pollard dives into the FBI’s harassment of Dr. King with a steady, tactical approach.

For those unfamiliar, it becomes a chilling reminder of a courageous and charismatic civil rights leader, and the powerful white men who felt the best way to weaken Dr. King was through revelations of his sexual indiscretions.

And as you hear racists from decades past recite the same, tired excuses for their fear and bigotry that we’re hearing now, the folly of our confident righteousness is exposed with a sad irony.

Looking back, former FBI director James Comey describes the assault on Dr. King as the saddest days in the history of the bureau. Those times were daunting, too, and they called for accountability that never came.

Are we condemned to repeat that history? We’ll see very soon, which makes the lessons of MLK/FBI as vital as ever.


John Lewis: Good Trouble

by Rachel Willis

With a man as active as John Lewis, finding a focal point from which to craft a story could prove challenging. Should a documentarian focus on his early years as a civil and voting rights activist? His first years as a politician? His contemporary battle to overturn voter suppression laws?

Director Dawn Porter decides to highlight a little bit of everything in John Lewis: Good Trouble. The result is a fascinating, if messy, portrait of one of America’s greatest fighters for equality and justice.

Porter’s efforts have previously featured John Lewis as an interviewee (the magnificent docu-series Bobby Kennedy for President), but this time, she mines the wealth of material surrounding the man himself.

Congressman Lewis is a more than worthy subject. His early years on the front lines of the fight for racial equality alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his current stumps along the campaign trail offer endless archival footage, colleagues and siblings to interview, and opportunities to follow the Congressman during his day-to-day life on the Hill. 

Some of the most noteworthy parts of the documentary showcase conversations with those who have been inspired by Lewis. Representative James Clyburn says Lewis is “the most courageous person [he] has ever met.” Representative Ilhan Omar quotes John Lewis saying she took to heart his message to “love your country like you love yourself.”

The bulk of the film addresses Mr. Lewis’s continuing struggle to ensure voting is accessible to everyone. In the 50’s and 60’s, it involved (among other things) walking door to door in black neighborhoods to encourage the residents to vote. Today, he wages the war in Congress, trying to strengthen the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. On the campaign trail, he encourages those who are most affected by restrictive voting laws to turn out in waves.

Some moments drag, as Porter tries to cram as much information about Lewis as she can into her 96-minute documentary. Certain stories seem added as an afterthought that would perhaps have been better left on the cutting room floor.

Mr. Lewis says he is deeply concerned about the future of democracy in America, but that he still believes “we shall overcome.” Anyone who needs inspiration or hope in these chaotic times can always look to John Lewis for guidance.

Wheels on the Bus

Free to Ride

by Hope Madden

A movie about bus stops, eh? It may seem like a trivial topic for a film, but Free to Ride does what many solid documentaries do: it points to the profound relevance of the seemingly ordinary.

With their impressive debut as feature length documentarians, director Jamaal Bell and writer/producer Matthew Martin craft an even-handed but powerful tale of a modern civil rights victory.

In 2009, the Dayton community activist group LEAD decided on their next cause: three bus stops between Dayton and Beavercreek, OH.

After the building of I675, Beavercreek hit a bit of an economic boom. This meant jobs, many of which were filled by residents of nearby Dayton. Public transit commuters found themselves in the unfortunate situation of walking the 1.1 mile trek from the nearest RTI stop, across a busy overpass not meant for pedestrians.

Commuters wanted more bus stops. LEAD wanted more bus stops. RTI wanted to put in more bus stops.

Beavercreek said no.

Why? A lot of reasons were given about crime and traffic and listening to constituents. LEAD felt that these reasons were coded. Beavercreek’s population is less than 5% African American, while Dayton’s is about 40% African American.

Regardless of reason, rejecting the new bus stops did two things. It endangered the people commuting from Dayton to Beavercreek and it limited the employment opportunities, among others, of the citizens of Dayton.

What follows is a provocative look into small town politics, discrimination and community activism.

Free to Ride offers a surprisingly balanced, thoughtful documentation of an issue much larger than it might appear. Through city council meeting footage and in-person interviews, the film sheds light on the bigger picture without feeling preachy or sensationalistic.

The solution to the problem was not only clever but groundbreaking, offering the film a historical heft that it might not otherwise have. More than that, we not only glimpse the tenacity and passion of community activists, we actually get to see corporate executives and government officials tear up. Nice!

Credit the filmmakers, both researchers at The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute, for approaching the topic with a clear eye and a background in research. Free to Ride finds more power in fact and understatement than it could have with sensationalism or sentimentality.