A moving look at the fight for civil rights

It's a good sign when fine feature film directors turn to television - it means TV gets real talent behind a project. So it was good news when Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") made "Freedom Song" - a movie he'd worked on for 11 years (airing throughout March beginning Sunday, Feb. 27, TNT, 7-9:30 p.m.).

The civil rights saga stars Danny Glover as Will Walker, just home from service in World War II. Having faced Hitler, he imagines things will change in Mississippi - or that he can make them change. But Jim Crow laws, prejudice, custom, and the local Klan make his attempts at reform unavailing. Aggressive white racists see to it that he loses his business and home, and that his family is intimidated.

So, defeated, Walker raises his son to have pride, but young Owen (Vicellous Reon Shannon) grows angry with the injustice he sees around him. As the Civil Rights movement gains momentum in the South, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sends delegates to Walker's town. He forbids Owen to join, but the teenager quietly participates. Of course, the conflict between father and son heats up as the conflict between civil rights workers and white citizens heats up.

Mr. Robinson, as both writer and director, tells his dramatic story in low-key fashion. He wants us to feel the character of the times, to help us understand why so many risked their lives to defy hundreds of years of oppression. Through moments of quiet discussion and intense, but composed activity, he shows how ordinary people find it in themselves to rise to the occasion.

Robinson shows the source of their strength.

"I did a lot of research, spent a lot of time in Mississippi with veterans of the civil rights movement and local people who worked with SNCC," Robinson says. "You can't do that and not come away with a sense of how important spirituality and faith were to civil rights. It couldn't have happened without faith."

Why does this film seem so timely? "I think after years of observing our politicians at work, we are hungry for idealism and commitment," Robinson says. "We're tired of waiting for others ... to solve our problems. In the '60s, activism was more widespread."

There has been a real drop-off in individuals taking responsibility for solving societal problems, he says. One of the lessons SNCC taught was to look to the community to solve the problems of the community.

"SNCC said, 'We're here to help,' " Robinson says. " 'What do you want to do? What do you need? Someday we're going to be run out of town or killed, and the movement cannot stop because we've stopped. You are the movement.' "

SNCC went to the South ostensibly to register African-Americans to vote. There were a lot of people who were too frightened to register, but who offered the students a place to sleep or a free meal. Robinson based his story on the facts.

He says that people do not hate naturally. "Part of the time I was writing the screenplay, I was in Sarajevo [Bosnia] shooting documentaries for 'Nightline.' People are taught to hate and encouraged to hate by their leaders.... None of this stuff is inevitable." SNCC started out nonviolent, but dissolved after its leadership took up black nationalist rhetoric later in the '60s. Many of the disenchanted members went on to found or participate in grass-roots community organizations to make a difference.

"In every community there are homespun organizations to solve the problems of the community," Robinson says. "And there is nothing to stop any of us from pitching in a little time. If we all did that, it would make a real difference." "Freedom Song" makes that participation look inevitable.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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