Freedom Riders (2010)

Riders on the storm

Gerald Loftus talks about the award-winning documentary Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson.

I do not say award-winning lightly. Stanley Nelson, already a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship, picked up three Emmy Awards for Freedom Riders (Non-fiction Filmmaking – Best Documentary, Editing for Non-fiction, and Writing for Non-fiction).

With the additional draw of Nelson, we had a capacity audience of students, academics, interested citizens, and friends of the Legation. With the good vibes still resonating from last week’s Tanjazz and its African American jazz greats, perhaps the memory of the American civil rights struggle was even more topical. And no one missed the obvious parallels between the American South of the Sixties and the current struggle for rights in the Arab world.

For those who don’t know Freedom Riders, it tells the story of a courageous band of civil rights activists who challenged segregation simply by traveling together on buses and trains through the Deep South in 1961. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, more than 400 black and white college students risked their lives — and many met with bitter racism, mob violence and imprisonment — sorely testing their beliefs in non-violent activism.

Stanley Nelson’s 35 years of documentary film-making (Jonestown, The Murder of Emmett Till) have honed his narrative skills to perfection. Moroccan audiences are known for conducting full-blown conversations during lectures, concerts and films but, when I saw this, all were riveted to the screen, as septuagenarians told of their brushes with death at the hands of screaming mobs of Ku Klux Klan racists.

111 mins.

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