#531) Freedom Riders (2010)

#531) Freedom Riders (2010)

Directed & Written by Stanley Nelson. Based on the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” by Raymond Arsenault.

Class of 2020 

As always, this post cannot possibly convey the scope and importance of the real-life events depicted in this movie, and I strongly encourage further research on the Freedom Rides.

The Plot: In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored the Freedom Rides, a Civil Rights movement in which both Black and White citizens would ride in buses together, with a goal to highlight how many (mostly Southern) states were not upholding federal anti-segregation laws. Initially planned as a trip from Virginia to New Orleans, with several stops along the way, these initial Freedom Rides were met with hostility, violence, and even arrests for its riders. Although the Riders never made their destination, their actions (and those of subsequent rides) encouraged the growing Civil Rights movement. Almost 50 years later, “Freedom Riders” chronicles these events from as many perspectives as possible: the Riders themselves, local citizens, and even a few of the political figures who simultaneously helped and harmed the movement.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the documentary for its “extraordinary clarity and emotional force” and predicts that “Freedom Riders” will “inspire later generations”. The NFR write-up includes a link to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, and the raw, uncut interviews Stanley Nelson conducted for the film.

But Does It Really?: In less than two hours, “Freedom Riders” covered its events with such honesty and nuance, I really felt like I had experienced it. The film is an excellent companion piece to other Civil Rights movies on the list (“The March” and “4 Little Girls” to name just two), and is devoid of any false emotions or manipulation by the filmmakers. Overall, “Freedom Riders” is a reminder that while every historical movement has its leaders, it has to begin with ordinary people and their beliefs. It’s too early to call “Freedom Riders” a classic, but this movie is an important document of American history, and definitely worth a viewing.

Everybody Gets One: While studying at Leonard Davis Film School in the mid-70s, Stanley Nelson was inspired to become a documentarian after seeing D.A. Pennebaker give a lecture. After an apprenticeship with William Greaves, Nelson found himself working for PBS. Many of Nelson’s documentaries (including “Freedom Riders”) have aired as part of the PBS series “American Experience”. Nelson was inspired to make “Freedom Riders” not only because of the event’s place in Civil Rights history, but also because, as he put it, “many of the people involved are still living, vital and energetic.”

Wow, That’s Dated: Unfortunately the most dated aspect of this 2010 documentary is the national consensus that racism is bad. I’m not saying that racism and violent oppression weren’t happening 10 years ago, but in the wake of Obama’s election, White America was quick to believe we were living in a “Post-racial America” (Spoilers: We weren’t). A documentary like “Freedom Riders” was made with the message of “let’s not forget where we’ve been”, but sadly today is viewed as “history repeats itself”.

Seriously, Emmys?: After playing the film festival circuit in 2010, “Freedom Riders” aired on PBS in May 2011 to coincide with the original event’s 50th anniversary. That summer, “Freedom Riders” was nominated for, and won, three Emmys: Picture Editing, Writing, and Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking.

Other notes 

  • “Freedom Riders” is the first movie from the 2010s to be inducted into the NFR, and as of this writing is the most recent film on the list.
  • Among the first interviewees in this film is the late, great Congressman John Lewis. He was one of the first Freedom Riders on the initial trip, and was a devoted Civil Rights activist to the very end. Lewis often categorized his activism as “good trouble, necessary trouble“.
  • Both this film and “Crisis” highlight President John F. Kennedy’s lack of attention to the growing Civil Rights movement early in his administration. “Freedom Riders” paints JFK as more focused on foreign diplomacy, hoping that any stateside race issues would resolve themselves. It was not until after things got violent for the Freedom Riders that Kennedy took action.
  • Similarly surprising, Dr. Martin Luther King was initially against the Freedom Riders, asking them not to go in the first place. Dr. King would eventually support the cause, but declined to participate in the actual ride, leading to brief discord from some of the Riders, the kind you rarely see directed towards the lionized, infallible figure King has become.
  • Shoutout to Irene Morgan, an African-American woman in Virginia who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus a full decade before Rosa Parks.
  • Ugh, John Patterson’s interviewed in this. Longtime readers may recall an idealistic version of Patterson played by Ricard Kiley in “The Phenix City Story“, made before Patterson became Governor of Alabama and upheld the state’s segregationist stance. Patterson’s 2010 interview tries to walk back some of his viewpoints, and place the blame on federal resources outside his jurisdiction.
  • The first instance of mob violence in Anniston, Alabama is a sobering viewing experience. “Freedom Riders” does an excellent job of making these attacks of the past feel alive in the present. In fact the entire documentary excels at that sense of unyielding tension and constant anxiety these activists faced every moment of the Rides.
  • Note: I watched “Freedom Riders” one day before the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Watching that horrible act of White supremacy on the news amplified what this movie was trying to convey, especially Black activist Frederick Leonard’s quote about dealing with violent White people: “They were always on guard, thinking that we were going to do something to them, while they were doing it to us.”
  • Perhaps the film’s most impressive feat: it’s a Civil Rights story featuring White participants without turning into a White Savior movie. The White Freedom Riders are depicted as no better or worse than their Black counterparts, and the White authority figures only do the right thing reactively, rather than proactively. The result is much more palatable than so many other films that tread the same water.
  • Then as now, anyone associated with a progressive movement is automatically labeled as an “agitator” by the opposing authority, claiming that the best course of action is a return to normalcy, despite the fact that this “normalcy” is what led to the need for a progressive movement in the first place. But I digress…
  • It’s somewhat ironic that martial law had to be evoked to overrule Governor Patterson’s disregard for the Freedom Riders: it’s the same tactic then-citizen Patterson urged the Alabama governor to use against Phenix City’s crime syndicate.
  • In an archival address, Attorney General Robert Kennedy reasserts his support of African-Americans, even suggesting that one could become president. This may be the first time that clip was prescient rather than empty rhetoric.
  • There are so many details I don’t have the time to go over, but I strongly suggest a viewing as a starting point for future research. Of special importance is Diane Nash, who kept the Freedom Rides going when it became too dangerous for the original group to continue.


  • Stanley Nelson’s follow-up to “Freedom Riders” was the similarly titled “Freedom Summer”, about the 1964 campaign to encourage African-American voter registration in Mississippi. In recent years, Stanley Nelson has received both a Peabody and an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. [2022 Update: Stanley Nelson received his first Oscar nomination for his documentary “Attica”.]

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