Watching “Freedom Riders” — filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s laudably reverent but slightly stiff recounting of the historic bus rides that shamed a nation into dismantling its segregation laws — one is struck by how close yet distant all of it now seems. When it comes to an anniversary retrospective, 50 is the golden number: long enough ago to feel like history, but close enough to still include the thoughts and hindsight of those who lived it. Close enough to still make you wince with a mix of anger, pain and remorse.
“Freedom Riders” (which premieres on PBS stations Monday night) begins as a thorough portrait of the first group of men and women — mostly young, both black and white — who signed up in May 1961 to board two Greyhound and Trailways buses on routes from Washington to New Orleans that would take them through the deepest South. The point was to flout the pernicious Jim Crow laws that kept American travelers segregated by race in bus-station lounges, restrooms and lunch counters. The riders’ intent was to journey and dine together, symbolically, as friends.
They were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality, and looking back, they recall their sense of purposeful if naive idealism during their orientation phase, in which they blithely ignored training scenarios for defusing violent outbursts. They mostly believed they were participating in a well-intentioned protest and, although no one would have termed it so back then, a media stunt.
That all changed a week later as an angry mob in Alabama ran one of the buses off the road and torched it, watching as the panicked passengers barely escaped. And so, throughout that violent spring and summer, hundreds of activists boarded bus lines headed for the South to keep the cause aloft. They were taunted, beaten and jailed, but they pressed on — many of them prepared to die for it.
“Freedom Riders,” which is based on historian Raymond Arsenault’s book of the same name, rejoices in what was surely one of America’s boldest expressions of peaceful (if one-sidedly so) resistance. The film explores the embarrassingly reluctant initial response of the Kennedy administration to the crisis; some of the better stuff here comes not from the riders but from John Seigenthaler, who was a young, Southern-born Justice Department aide sent, alone, to Alabama “deal with” the crisis and found himself caught in a maelstrom of hate. The events he witnessed — including the day he was beaten unconscious while trying to protect a female Freedom Rider — profoundly changed Seigenthaler, who had been raised in a well-off Nashville household staffed by black servants whom he’d regarded as all but invisible.
Nelson, whose previous films have explored the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, lets the story of the Freedom Riders unfold at a deliberate pace and makes use of some previously unseen footage from the bus fire and interviews with a former Klan informant — both of which had been deeply shelved within FBI archives.
“Freedom Riders” is a moving and inspiring piece, and that’s exactly what it feels like — a piece of a larger anniversary tribute that has, among other things, led to a reunion of surviving Freedom Riders on a recent episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and a modern-day bus ride to commemorate the original trip. This makes “Freedom Riders” seem like the kind of film one encounters in an air-conditioned museum auditorium.
Although it isn’t quite fair to wish that the documentary you’re watching (and reviewing) would surprisingly veer into uncharted territory and become another kind of film, I found myself hoping for something that never shows up in all two hours of “Freedom Riders”: interviews with the people who attacked the riders.
They are all over the news footage and archival photographs, angrily snarling their sentiments to reporters. Can they really be that hard to locate now? How do they feel when they see themselves in these pictures? (How do their children and grandchildren feel?) Is it the job of “Freedom Riders” to seek them out?
To some extent, yes — and that would be a different project. Nelson does interview former Alabama governor John Patterson, who was a fearful and ugly presence when he defended segregation on TV in 1961. Today, as an old man, he is honest about what happened, even circumspect, but not necessarily illuminating. (Not in the way viewers will hope for.)
Among the accomplishments of the Freedom Riders was their ability to transform an oppressed minority into a proud assembly of individuals entitled to equal rights. The reverse effect, it seems, was to turn crowds of hateful white people into a generic, anonymous mass.
Time, a sense of shame and a lingering racism have conspired to keep these folks safely out of reach from probing public-television filmmakers. Still, a fuller story about this historic chapter would bring more of the Freedom Riders’ antagonizers to the forefront — with persistent, journalistic curiosity — to hear what they have to say now.
(two hours) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.