“The documentary is not only inspiring and instructive, it holds surprises even for those who believe they know this epochal American story.” – 2014 Peabody Awards
The Murder of Fred Hampton, Howard Alk’s 1971 portrait of the Black Panther leader’s last days, turned Stanley Nelson onto the power of documentary as a tool to reach audiences and change perceptions. Nelson has since become one of the premiere documentarians of American and civil rights history, producing and directing films including the Murder of Emmitt Till (2003), Jonestown: the Life and Death of the People’s Temple (2006) and the Emmy Winning Freedom Riders (2010). Nelson’s latest DVD release, Freedom Summer, employs archival footage and photographs, illustrations, and interviews to present a richly complex history of the of the violent summer of 1964, when over 700 university student volunteers came to Mississippi from across the country. The young activists moved in with local organizers and residents for the entirety of the summer to help register African American voters, set up freedom schools, and create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state’s segregationist Democratic Party. Available for viewing at the Black Film Center/ Archive, the PBS “American Experience” documentary won the 2014 Peabody Award for excellence in media storytelling.
Nelson’s documentaries continually dispel the idea that because we’ve seen the images of the bus rides, sit-ins, marches, and murderous violence, that we know the history of the civil rights movement. Upon winning the 2013 National Humanities Medal, Nelson said, “What I’m trying to do is part detective. There’s a feeling that we all know about the civil rights movement. So part of it is finding new and exciting voices that we haven’t heard.” In just under 2 hours, Freedom Summer traces not only the major events—the successes and failures—of those long months in the deep-south, but also the intricacies of its organization and implementation. A very small group of predominantly black organizers associated with the Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) enlisted student activists to bring sustained national media attention to the poor living conditions that black Mississippians endured, and especially to voter discrimination that kept registration among African Americans to under 7%. Because Mississippi rarely made the evening news, it seemed that no one in the country knew much or cared about these abominable injustices. Bringing a coalition of young, affluent university students, black and white, would help bring Mississippi into the spotlight.
The documentary presents a variety of perspectives to reveal the multiple systems of oppression employed to keep both black and white southerners “in their place”: legal structures and police enforcement, violent threats and action, and everyday fear and intimidation. Speaking with surprising candor in his documentary interview, Citizens’ Councils member William Scarborough explains that the Ku Klux Klan was largely absent from Mississippi until Freedom Summer, because his organization, deeply entrenched in the state’s political machinery, effectively enforced white supremacy with full support of the law. The students selected for the program were warned of expected violent repercussions before their arrival and given the option to turn back, but few did. Several of those interviewed now acknowledge that the plan worked because they were “young and foolish” enough to go through with it. Shortly after their arrival in Mississippi, one black and two white members– James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner– would go missing, later to turn up dead (the “Mississippi Burning” murders). Some of the black visiting students interviewed said that they realized the extent of the danger that they were in after this event, knowing now that the whiteness of some of their colleagues would offer no protection.
Those from Mississippi already knew the extent to which the state coerced its residents—both black and white—into abiding by its dictum of “States rights, racial integrity” (the slogan of Citizens’ Councils). Nelson’s film makes clear the essential role that black Mississippians played in the successes of Freedom Summer, both by opening their homes to students and by joining the movement, an especially dangerous, even life-threatening, decision for those with no protections and little prospect of leaving Mississippi if the violence continued to escalate.
Sharecropper Fanny Lou Hamer emerges as a central force of Nelson’s documentary. Hamer registered to vote with full knowledge that it would mean losing her job, and became one of the most powerful voices for change in Mississippi. Nelson’s documentary culminates at the national stage: Hamer’s famous televised appeal for a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party follows Rita Schwerner’s visit to Lyndon B. Johnson to demand justice for the murder of her husband and his two colleagues. The President’s response to both women, revealed through audiotapes to J. Edgar Hoover and firsthand accounts, is chilling. Johnson would sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that very same summer, but Nelson’s film (like Ava DuVernay’s Selma) shows that the path to voting rights was politically fraught and did not follow a straight or easy line toward forward progression. Significantly, Freedom Summer presents its history as a collective struggle, when a female sharecropper played as important a role as a president or the nationally recognized civil rights leaders.
Nelson works primarily in research-based, historical documentary, drawing comparisons to another PBS mainstay, Ken Burns. In a recent New York Times piece on Nelson and his Black Panthers documentary, Burns describes the difficulties of translating an enormously complex and unbounded history into compelling, even poetic, storytelling: “So as a filmmaker, when you bump into a Stanley, you go, wow, that was great. There’s a real frisson, an excitement and an energy his films always have.” Nelson returned to the subject that first drew him to filmmaking for his most recent documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which premiered to sold out audiences at Sundance and as the opening night screening at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2015. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeAsxK7PRa0 Today is the final day of Nelson’s fundraising campaign for a theatrical release to help his documentary reach a more diverse audience, including those who may not go to film festivals or watch PBS. Noting the timeliness of the documentary, the filmmaking team explains the impetus of a wider release on their crowdsourcing page: “For us this Kickstarter campaign is about more than just getting into theaters, it’s about sparking a national conversation on the conditions that created the Black Panther Party, conditions – like police violence, substandard education, joblessness – that continue to plague us today.” The fundraising goals have been met, but Nelson plans to use additional funds for screenings in cities including Ferguson, MO, joining forces with the #blacklivesmatter movement.
Black Panthers screens this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, where Nelson is currently living as a visiting film instructor at Morgan State University, a historically black college. “Spending time in the city has given me insight into the troubling conditions so many young African American women and men face. It has also given me an opportunity to witness the amazing potential, work ethic and desire among my young students to tell their own story about their city,” says Nelson. He hopes that the Panthers’ example of community organizing will inspire young people in the area, and that his own work as a filmmaker will turn the next generation onto the power of film as a tool for social change.