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The Independent Critic

Original members of The Freedom Riders
Stanley Nelson, Jr.
120 Mins.

 "Freedom Riders" Review 
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Fans of civil rights era historical docs will most assuredly appreciate Stanley Nelson, Jr's Crystal Heart Award-winning doc Freedom Riders, which recently played during the 2010 Heartland Film Festival and took home the festival's $25,000 top prize for Best Documentary Feature.

Freedom Riders is a rather straightforward doc about a diverse group of activists who left Washington D.C. in 1961 to travel through the Southern U.S., despite segregationist laws that made such a venture a potentially life-threatening one. The group's first trip to Alabama ended after one bus was destroyed and many of the people on another bus were severely beaten. When it seemed the act of civil disobedience might die down, even Martin Luther King Jr. himself would not participate, a group of college students picked up the event and began making repeated trips despite jailings and regular acts of brutality.

Eventually, the federal government had to act and the Freedom Riders became internationally recognized for their civil rights activism.

Nelson utilizes a tremendous amount of archival footage, occasionally interspersing lighter moments such as a Greyhound commercial that helps to pace the film nicely. There's also tremendous mob footage along with long withheld footage of the burning bus that remained unseen for the better part of 40 years.

If Freedom Riders were to be judged simply for its straightforward doc style and rather ordinary tech quality, the film itself would be right at home on the History Channel and relatively unworthy of note. However, Nelson proves himself a staunch devotee to the truth by allowing long revered figures such as Dr. King and the Kennedy's to be seen in a not so positive light for the ways in which they failed to act during such a significant act of the civil rights movement. While, of course, there's always two sides to every story...seldom is the side seen of the criticisms that followed the Kennedy's for at times waiting until a national outcry before they would act and, even in the case of King, his sometimes selective approach to activism.

The most powerful aspect of Freedom Riders is that Nelson recruited the participation of many of the surviving riders themselves, who tell of the experience from their own perspective and, rather heartbreakingly in one scene, share of actually completing wills before completing a ride because they were all aware that this act could cost them their lives.

A well made doc about a story not often told, Freedom Riders is likely to have a long life on the film festival circuit with ancillary markets sure to pick it up once its festival run is complete.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic