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Part of the public-television series American Experience, Stanley Nelson’s latest feature revisits the racial tempest of May 1961, when a group of civil-rights activists attempted a bus trip from Washington to New Orleans only to be stopped short by Klan rallies, mob rule, and government intransigence. This narrative-by-the-numbers accompaniment to historian Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice is in keeping with Nelson’s previous films that tackled racial and ethnic upheavals, such as Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind and Wounded Knee. But despite its made-for-PBS feel, Freedom Riders does contain some excellent interviews and recollections from the players in this early victory for the civil-rights movement. The archival material also paints a grayer picture of the heroes of the 1960s: The Kennedys were not gung-ho about the Freedom Riders; if anything, they and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were skittish about the deliberately provocative nature of these activists’ plans. Rep. John Lewis is featured plenty, as are many of the whites who participated in the Freedom Rides and suffered some of the worst brutality as Southern mobs—often with the blessing of local police forces—swarmed the bus routes. Perhaps the most pertinent insight comes from the participants who weren’t on the bus. Former Alabama Gov. John Patterson, a sworn enemy of civil rights in the archival footage, is remorseful in his present-day interviews, and in this film gets a rare opportunity to share his version of events.
At 10:45 a.m.; also on Sunday, June 27, at 6:15 p.m. Both screenings at AFI Silver Theater 3.