ABOVE PHOTO: Stanley Nelson, Writer/Producer/Director, ‘FREEDOM RIDERS.’
Credit: Firelight Media
Stanley Nelson, recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, is an award-winning filmmaker best known for his groundbreaking historical documentaries that illuminate critical but overlooked history. Nelson’s work for American Experience includes Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind and The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson has been honored with the Sundance Special Jury Prize, Peabody Award, Primetime Emmy, and an IDA Award.
Q: What made you decide to make a film about the Freedom Riders and why now?
Nelson: I thought it was a great story about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement that hadn’t really been told and where the main characters were common and unknown people. I think there are a couple of reasons for doing it at this time—one of them being that it happened almost 50 years ago and many involved have passed away but there are many still alive. The other reason is that the 50th anniversary is in 2011.
Q: What were some of the surprising things you discovered when making the film and speaking with the participants?
Nelson: It was dangerous and they were alone. There was no police protection, no press and they faced this alone, just a group of 13 people who decided to challenge the segregation customs in the Deep South. I was also surprised that the Civil Rights Movement looked at Mississippi at this time as impenetrable and really had not gone into Mississippi up until this point. Also surprising was the level of violence that they faced given the fact that they were just trying to sit on a bus and eat together. We also found footage that was shot in the late 1970s of a former Klan informant for the FBI who was involved in the attacks against the Freedom Riders. We only found this by combing through 35 40-pound boxes that were in storage for decades. The interview was part of a film that was never completed, and thus never seen before by the general public.
Q: Were all the participants—including people like former Alabama Governor John Patterson—agreeable to speaking on camera or was a certain amount of convincing necessary?
Nelson: We felt it was very important to tell the story from multiple perspectives. They were surprisingly agreeable once they were convinced that what we were doing was honorable and in depth. I think people like Governor Patterson looked at it as a chance to tell their side of the story. Also, Ray Arsenault had convinced a lot of these people to tell their stories for the book, and he introduced me to them when it came time for the film.
Q: What challenges did you face during the production?
Nelson: We had the usual production challenges of trying to find archival hidden gems, including footage of the burning bus from the FBI that they had never released before. And one of the more unusual challenges during filming was that while filming our evocative scenes, our cameraperson was hit by a car and the man is still at large!
Q: It’s obvious that America, and the South, have come a long way since 1961 but it’s hard not to feel that we may have lost some of the passion and moral courage that the Freedom Riders exemplified. Do you agree?
Nelson: Yes, I would agree. I think that one of the major points of the film is the courage and commitment that so many people had to change America.
Q: Young people today don’t seem very aware of the past, including the very recent past. Do you see this film as a corrective to that?
Nelson: Yes, we hope that it will inspire young people to see that the past was made up of courageous, ordinary people who were able to make great changes. One of the things that the film does really well is to show that success was not inevitable and only came from perseverance. Young people today haven’t seen such successes in their lifetime. We think they are connected to the ’60s but they are not. In the ’60s and ’70s, we had people-based movements on so many fronts: the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and the women’s movement, and young people today haven’t seen that. It’s important to show them what courageous people can do.
Q: How does this film connect to your previous work?
Nelson: By a set of circumstances, I’ve done many films about the period of 1955 to 1980, some of them on Civil Rights subjects and some not. Part of what I’ve tried to do is make films about what I call ‘people-based movements’ that in some ways go against the ‘great man’ theory of history.
Q: How did you decide to structure the film?
Nelson: The film is structured in a chronological way because the Freedom Rides were something that took place in a short period of time—most of the main action occurred within a one-month period. Within that we saw the Freedom Rides as consisting of three waves: the first wave of the thirteen original Riders; the second wave, the students from Nashville; and the third wave, people from all over the country joining in. So it helped us to think of it as three waves or like a symphony in three movements.
Q: What would you like people to take away with them after watching FREEDOM RIDERS?
Nelson: That great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people. And that sometimes to do any great thing, it’s important that we step out alone.
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