Freedom On My Mind
Freedom On My Mind
reviewed by Greta Christina
If you're anything like me, you've been driven almost to madness by the Hollywood depiction of the Black civil rights movement of the early-to-mid 60s. You've sat through Mississippi Burning and The Long Walk Home, grinding your teeth, feeling your blood pressure go up by the minute. You've wondered why movies about the civil rights movement are always about courageous white people (and if you're anything like me, you've come up with some very uncharitable answers). And you've thought to yourself, "This is such a fascinating part of American history. Why can't we see a movie that tells the real story?"
Well, if this description fits you even a tiny bit, then I urgently advise you to run out right this minute and see Freedom On My Mind. It's a documentary about the early days of the Black civil rights movement in Mississippi. Specifically, it focuses on the Mississippi Voter Registration Project, which organized to register Black voters in Mississippi from 1961 to 1964; the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which attempted to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic convention; and, of course, the famous Freedom Rides of 1964, in which black and white activists directly challenged Southern segregation and brought it to the attention of the national media.
Now, stay with me folks. Just because a movie is a documentary doesn't mean it's clumsy and ponderous and boring. Freedom On My Mind is anything but. It's entertaining as well as instructive; it's compelling, dramatic, occasionally funny, frequently horrifying, and definitely inspiring. The events that it documents are fascinating, and the movie has a feeling of currency and presence, capturing not only the facts, but a flavor of the time.
One of the most valuable aspects of this movie is the lesson in mass denial it provides. Some of the creepiest parts of the movie concern the contrast between what the white folks in Mississippi thought Black people felt about them, and what the Black people actually did feel about them. The filmmakers show us shot after shot of white segregationists saying things like "our colored folks are happy" and "we got along fine before those outside agitators showed up" -- intercut with unmistakable expressions of rage, fear, hostility and injustice from the Black Mississippians.
Freedom On My Mind also serves as an extremely useful instruction manual on activism -- not only on how to do it, but why. Anyone who thinks that non-violent-but-confrontational in-your-face activism is counterproductive or makes the community look bad really needs to see this movie. It reminds me of the proverb about prophets being mocked in their own country. It's fairly easy to see political dissenters from the past as courageous and heroic and ahead of their time; it's not as easy to recognize political courage and vision when it's raging at your own front door.
I was particularly entranced at how the film showed the same kind of language that's currently being directed against the queer movement being used against the Black civil rights movement. The film shows some remarkably scary footage of the segregationist right wing. It shows them manipulating the economic anxiety of poor and working-class white people. It shows them playing on nostalgia and the fear of change, presenting the Black movement as a threat to "traditional values" and "our traditional way of life." It shows them portraying the Black civil rights workers as sexual predators using the movement to get at "your wives and daughters." It even shows them denouncing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a demand for "special rights" for Blacks. Does any of this sound familiar?
But what I like best about Freedom On My Mind is its center of attention. The heart of the story is clearly located in Black Mississippi, and that's where the filmmakers point their camera. The film does acknowledge the contribution that white activists made to the movement. It even recognizes that certain kinds of progress might not have happened (or happened so quickly, anyway) if idealistic white kids with influential white parents hadn't been along for the ride, drawing with them both media attention and legal protection. But the movie puts these contributions into the proper context -- the context of a movement that was organized by and for Black Mississippians. The vast majority of the faces and voices in the film, both in the archival footage of the movement itself and the present-day commentary and reflection on the movement, are African-American. Just this fact alone made the film a deep pleasure.
I realize it's absurd that this should be an issue. To focus on Black activists in a movie about the civil rights movement is such an obvious, no-brainer choice that it shouldn't even be worth commenting on. But with the exception of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, I can't think of a single Hollywood movie that's made that choice. Certainly one or two films are not enough to even begin to cover this very fertile ground. But Freedom On My Mind helps to fill in a gap that mainstream American movies have left depressingly blank.
Copyright 1994 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.