History is usually interpreted through grand moments with star figures who, depending on who's writing the history, acted with divine guidance. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, for example, are well-known civil-rights-era "stars." Lesser known are the undocumented heroes at the grassroots level. The people who never had a statue erected in their honor. The marvelous TNT movie Freedom Song tells the story of some of these people. Freedom Song is set in 1961 in the fictional town of Quinlan, Mississippi, where news of civil rights activity in the north and urban areas buffets the small, highly segregated town. African-American teenager Owen Walker (Vicellous Reon Shannon, who currently appears in The Hurricane) is eager to join the movement. A long-stewing anger draws him to the sit-ins he reads about in the newspaper and hears about on the radio. So he is first intrigued, and then disappointed, when the movement comes to town in the form of a quiet, bespectacled figure named Daniel Wall (Vondie Curtis Hall), a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer. Wall has no bold sit-ins or acts of defiance planned. His goal is to organize a voter registration drive of African-Americans in and around Quinlan. Though Owen meets this effort with eye-rolling disappointment, he soon realizes the deeper (and dangerous) implications of the task. Eventually, other SNCC organizers come to Quinlan, and Owen and other young people join the organization and activity begins to heat up.
Like most civil-rights-era stories, Freedom Song has many of the requisite landmarks and archetypes: a black youth anxious to settle past injustices; the lush terrain of the South, which lays like a beautiful, verdant blanket over a putrid, unspoken racial tension; the Klan and other "angry white men" who want the "Negroes" to stay in their place; long-suffering elders; and the spiritual buoyancy of music. Freedom Song has all of this, but miraculously, these elements do not play as if the film is following the same ruts in the road. It makes its own tracks with discreet gestures that refresh the story. The exceptional score by Sweet Honey & the Rock (founded by SNCC veteran Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon) and composer James Horner (Titanic) is one such gesture. The complicated tension between Owen and his father Will (Danny Glover) over Owen's involvement in SNCC is another. In addition, Freedom Song doesn't have a single, charismatic leader to forge the way in a noble scene against racial injustice. And this is where Freedom Song earns its highest praise: by capturing ordinary people when they make extraordinary choices.
Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), the script was created with oral histories from movement veterans in Mississippi, as well as former SNCC members Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, Dave Dennis, Bob Zellner, and Dr. Vincent Harding, who all served as consultants on Freedom Song.
"I got in touch with some of the SNCC veterans who had inspired me," explains Robinson in TNT press material. "They told me, with characteristic humility, that I shouldn't make a movie about them. They said it was the local people who risked their lives by housing them and feeding them who were the real heroes -- SNCC knew they'd leave town at a certain point, but it was the local people who had to stay and face the consequences.
"Of course, they were suspicious at first, because Hollywood hasn't gotten their story right in the past -- Dave Dennis told me that many people had come to [SNCC] over the years wanting their cooperation, wanting the rights to their story. He pointed a finger at me and said, 'We're trusting you.' I've never forgotten that. It's been a valuable weight on my shoulders. It helps me remember why we're making this film and what we have to do to make it right."
Freedom Song gets it right. The two-and-a-half-hour film premieres this Sunday (2/27, 6pm, TNT). Encore screenings are 2/27 at 8:30pm, 2/28 at 11pm, 3/2 at 7pm, 3/4 at 9:30pm, 3/5 at 1pm, 3/8 at 9pm, and 3/11 at 11am. Check local listings to confirm air dates and times.
As always, stay tuned.
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