Stanley Nelson, the legendary director of non-fiction television and film, returns to Sundance with his fourth film to be considered in the U.S. Documentary Competition (after “A Place of Our Own,” “The Murder of Emmett Till,” and “The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords”). “Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists. Gaining impressive access to influential figures on both sides of the issue, Nelson chronicles a chapter of American history that stands as an astonishing testament to the accomplishment of youth and what can result from the incredible combination of personal conviction and the courage to organize against all odds.
In 1961 segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad. That is, until an integrated band of college students—many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university—decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face to face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation.” [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Stanley Nelson
Screenwriter: Stanley Nelson
Executive Producer: Mark Samels
Producer: Laurens Grant
Associate Producer: Stacey Holman
Composer: Tom Phillips
Editor: Lewis Erskine, Aljernon Tunsil
Archival Producer: Lewanne Jones
Nelson introduces himself and his documentary “Freedom Riders”…
My name is Stanley Nelson, I’ve worked as a documentary filmmaker for over 30 years in one capacity or another. I believed that there were stories that were not being told, and images that we were not seeing on the screen. This led me to filmmaking.
We felt that the story of the Freedom Riders had not been explored, and that it was an important human story about the beginning of what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement. We wanted to tell the story from as many different sides as possible. We wanted to include the voices of not only Freedom Riders but those who opposed them. We wanted voices of Southern Politicians and the Kennedy administration.
We wanted to tell the story without narration, an incredible challenge when doing any documentary, and an even bigger challenge when making an historical documentary. There is a short segment in the Civil Rights TV series “Eyes On The Prize” about the Freedom Riders — but it is great! We were continually inspired to do something as good if not better.
Nelson on showing the film to Sundance audiences…
I think the courage of everyday people in the film is amazing. I think the film also shows the Kennedys and Martin Luther King to be very different in 1961 from the icons they came to be.
Nelson on his next project…
I hope to soon begin a film about Jessie Owens and the 1936 Olympics.
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]