Freedom Summer, and an interview with director Stanley Nelson

"Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?" - Fannie Lou Hamer

Before and during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, this was the climate faced by African Americans who wanted to vote and have their voices heard, especially in Mississippi. The Freedom Ride movement in 1961 ignited a chain of events that led to Freedom Summer in 1964, where groups of white activists from the north converged with black activists from the South to plan a landmark initiative: they would go to the homes of African American Mississippians in the summer of 1964 and encourage them to vote. The prospective voters and activists alike faced grave dangers whilst standing up for justice, but they knew something had to be done, even though they faced the possibility of never being seen again.


This is the first film that's left me unable to write anything that could do it justice as a review, it's just that powerful. In its simplicity of archival footage combined with interviews, we get a full view of how these young activists came together, argued, conversed, and decided to exercise their power in Mississippi. We learn about the sometimes stomach-turning events that occurred before and after their arrival. It takes a monumental amount of guts, not to mention belief in change and in humanity -- despite the daily atrocities so many African Americans witnessed in Mississippi -- to stand up for what's right in the face of powerful, systemic ignorance. The entire story of Freedom Summer and the events that flanked it are the true definition of the word inspirational. This is the kind of documentary that makes you to take a look at the world around you, and asks, how far are you willing to go for change?

It was absolutely fantastic to get to speak with Stanley Nelson about the making of the film. Enjoy.

Miriam Lee: Congrats on your win at the Pan African Film Festival and for screening the film at Sundance! How did it go?

Stanley Nelson: The response at Sundance was great. Our first screening was on a Friday and we'd sent the film in that Tuesday. We had six showings and received standing ovations at all six. A great launch for them film.

ML: This documentary features a great deal of archival footage and incredible new interviews with many of
the people who were on the ground that summer in Mississippi. How did you go about building this complex project into such an impacting film?

SN: It took about a year and a half to make the film. In a documentary like this you're trying to have a multi-pronged approach. The first thing is to write the script, or, a script is given to us as kind of an outline. For Freedom Summer, there was actually a script already written because it was for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which requires all projects to have a really detailed script. American Experience handed us a script, which turned out to be a kind of roadmap. The film itself turned out very different. [American Experience] had also purchased a book called Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson. He also appears in the film and was a great source. We had another couple of books that were written about that summer that we also used as sources. We took those, in addition to the script outline, and at the same time were trying to find people who were part of Freedom Summer, trying to find white Mississippians who would give their impressions of what was going on in 1964, people who represent the federal government, all while looking for footage and pictures. We were doing all those things from the very first day to try to tell the story.

ML: One part of the film that was especially intriguing to me was the accounts of how the white volunteers had to live with the black Mississippians. It's one thing for blacks and whites to show up and protest together and make demands in public, but quite another for the two races at the time to be living together -- albeit temporarily -- in the name of carrying out their call for justice and equal right to vote.

SN: We really wanted to make sure that we included that piece of the journey, to say how brave the residents of Mississippi were to let these white people into their homes. Besides it breaking cultural mores in the South, it's also super brave -- not only did they have these people in their homes for the summer, but then after the summer was over, you had to stay there and take the repercussions that came. Another thing we wanted to address in the film was the fact that the white volunteers came as close as they could to living as a black person at that time. In Mississippi in 1964, the white people could not go to the white community for anything, they could not in any instance or moment, grab the white privilege they were so used to having. They were in the black community and that's where they could go -- black stores, black bars, whatever -- and they couldn't say, "Hey, I want to be white again" and go into town and go shopping in a white store. Everyone knew who they were by then, and they were putting their lives in their own hands. The people we spoke to said they were all changed by that experience.

ML: Among the many jaw-dropping moments in the film is Lyndon B. Johnson's pre-empting of Fannie Lou Hamer's speech* at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Had you heard about that previous to making the film?

SN: I probably knew a little bit, maybe more than the average person, but I didn't know much about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. I didn't know about LBJ recording all his phone calls where he's talking about nigras, and how to stop the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and then not wanting his name to be involved in it all. I thought that was just amazing to hear -- the President of the United States on tape talking about nigras -- it's incredible. We had to subtitle Lyndon B. Johnson because it's kind of hard to understand his audio, and we told American Experience who was handling the subtitles not to fudge it -- he does NOT say negroes, he says nigras. It was important to show that this was the President of the United States saying this.

ML: Was there anything else about that summer or the civil rights movement then that was new to you as you made the film?

SN: So much of it is new for me, it's all a learning process. The whole story is kind of new, but I think one of the things that comes through in the film is the tension that existed between the activists; between the SNCC workers and the CORE workers who had been in Mississippi from 1961 to 1964 fighting to get people to vote. And then the idea of even doing Freedom Summer -- there was this heated debate about whether it should have even happened or not.

ML: When you were on Democracy Now! you discussed the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer which is this year, and also the parallels between what was going on that summer and the rights that're in jeopardy in the US today. What kind of reactions have you had, primarily from young people to your film?

SN: We've only had a handful of screenings so far, but at Sundance they have something called Community Screenings. They bussed in a theatreful of high school students to see the film, and 95% of the students were white. They gave the film the longest standing ovation of all. They had a lot of interesting questions and it was just great. I think it's going to do really well with young people. So many of the people involved in Freedom Summer were teenagers or somewhere in the their early 20s and young people can really identify with them. It's a very timely film as well, because some of the laws that were passed in 1965 like the Voter Rights Act are getting rolled back, there's voter suppression, and there's a general apathy that many people have toward voting. So it's important that people understand the fight that we went through to get people the right to vote.

One of the great lessons of Freedom Summer is that the volunteers saw something that was wrong and wanted to change it, and they volunteered their lives to try and change it. So it shows the power that we have. At the screening we had for the CORE and SNCC workers, someone said that the young generation now has not seen any kind of movement in 40 years in the United States. They haven't seen anything [carried out by them] succeed, so there's a level of not understanding the power that people have. Films like Freedom Summer and Freedom Riders say that you do have power -- you just have to take it and exercise it and you have to be concerned with what's happening around you. It's a little harder now -- let's face it -- I'm one who believes that the young generation is great and wonderful and wants change, but the systems aren't set up as they were in the past. We need movements and structures so that people can become part of movements. Social movements today, unfortunately, become unfocused, or don't have leaders. People in the civil rights movements, the women's movement, the anti-war movement were all committed to what they were doing and knew what they wanted. A lot of times you don't have that today. I think things will change and it will finally become that. One of the things you see from Freedom Summer is that it was a very, very organised, well-thought-out plan: We're going to bring these kids down to Mississippi, it's going to focus the eyes of the world on Mississippi, and while that happens we're going to register people to vote, run freedom schools, and challenge the Democratic National Convention.

ML: What was the most rewarding part about making this film?

SN: It's an honour to be able to tell this story, to get it out there, to see the film with audiences and see people appreciate and understand the story. For me, the biggest thing is when young people see the film. It's a huge deal to me; we want it to be something that can hopefully motivate young people. We don't want it to be a story that lives in a bubble. We want it to have some kind of impact on the viewer and how they can go about making change. Another thing that's rewarding is being able to be in a room with Bob Moses, Charlie Cobb, Julian Bond, Rita Schwerner, or any of the volunteers and just be around those people. Two other people from the film were at Sundance, Dave Dennis and Linda Whetmore Halpern, and they were thanking me for doing the film! I said, thank YOU for what you did. When I was kid there was no such thing as a black film director. If it wasn't for people like them there probably still wouldn't be.

ML: You were called an "explorer of Black History's uncharted terrain" in a 2011 New York Times article. So what's coming up next for you?

SN: We have three huge things that are happening. There's a three-part series for PBS and Independent Lens called "America Revisited". The first film is on the Black Panther party, the second is a two-hour film on historically black colleges and universities in the US, and the third is a four-hour film about the Atlantic slave trade. It's not about slavery but rather about the business of it, the trade, and how it worked, and how these systems that were put into place like banking, insurance, shipping -- systems we still use today -- were put in place because the slave trade was a huge business. We're also looking at making a film about sex in Hollywood where it concerns African Americans -- sex and the lack of romance, lack of sexuality for so many years, and then the hyper-sexualisation of the Seventies. We're very excited about these projects.

*                      *                        *
* Fannie Lou Hamer's speech was interrupted by LBJ in an attempt to draw attention away from a movement which he feared threatened his chances of re-election. His attempt backfired, as the press ended up running the speech several times during the evening's nightly news. Here is Fannie's moving speech in full:


Here is the excellent interview with Stanley Nelson on Democracy Now! on Freedom Summer.


For more on Stanley Nelson's work, visit the Firelight Media and American Experience websites. My deepest thanks again to Stanley!

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