Freedom Riders Latest Stop: Sundance Film Festival

(St. Petersburg, Fla.) January 12, 2010 – From the 862 films submitted to the Sundance 2010 U.S. Documentary Competition, only 16 were selected to compete at the acclaimed film festival. And one – Freedom Riders – is based on the similarly named book by Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and graduate director of the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg.

As the film’s primary historical consultant, Arsenault viewed an early version of the film in November. Arsenault also appears in the film and will see the latest version when he travels to Colorado Jan. 23 to attend three of the six film screenings. He will participate in Q&A sessions alongside the director, Stanley Nelson, the producers and two former Freedom Riders. A trailer for the film and an interview with the director are posted on the Sundance Web site. Click here to view.

In the book, Arsenault recounts how in 1961, emboldened by federal rulings that declared segregated interstate transit unconstitutional, groups of volunteers – blacks and whites – traveled together through the South, defying Jim Crow laws in buses and terminals and putting their lives on the line for racial justice.

“The film tells the story of a democratically based movement,” Arsenault said. “No one person dominates it. The film also reminds us where we were in 1961, that the notion of whites and blacks sharing a cup of coffee or sitting on a bus together was utterly unthinkable in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era, when some people were willing to resort to violence to stop others from living their lives as full citizens. It’s absolutely chilling.”

Named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times and one of the best books of 2006 by the Washington Post, Freedom Riders won the Southern Historical Association’s Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Prize as the most important book published in the field of Southern history in 2006.

“The Freedom Riders had the courage to defy their elders, to buck the political establishment, and to risk their lives to advance the cause of freedom,” Arsenault said. “Since I’ve lived with this story for more than a decade, I wasn’t sure that I would respond emotionally to the drama of the struggle shown on the screen. But I found myself tearing up more than once as I revisited the courage and commitment of these remarkable people. It’s an empowering story, and the film reminded me of that fact.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $1 million to WGBH Boston for the production of an American Experience documentary based on the book.

The documentary is scheduled to premiere on PBS in February 2011, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The release will coincide with a number of events including an interactive Web site with additional footage, a 20-city museum exhibition tour, a new abridged version of the book, and several university symposia. Arsenault will lead a two-week re-creation of the freedom rides with a group of college journalists documenting the journey.

The film’s director, Stanley Nelson, is a 2002 MacArthur Fellow known for groundbreaking historical documentaries. He won a Primetime Emmy in Best Direction, nonfiction, for his film, The Murder of Emmett Till, which was broadcast nationally on PBS’s flagship American history series American Experience and helped reopen the investigation of a 14-year-old black boy murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955. The American Experience series is produced by WGBH Boston, the source of one-third of prime-time PBS programming, including Nova, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Arthur, Masterpiece Theatre and This Old House.

The documentary is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People project, an initiative to encourage and strengthen teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture through projects that explore significant events and themes in U.S. history and culture.

Arsenault is a specialist in the political, social and environmental history of the American South. Freedom Riders, the product of extensive research over many years, is widely recognized as the definitive work on the Freedom Rider movement.

-USF St. Petersburg-