Rated: NR (Equiv. To PG) Our Content Ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language1 ; Sex/Nudity 1. Released 2001 Running time: 112 minutes
Director: Clark Johnson Screenwriter: Tim Sexton
Characters/Cast: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jeffrey Wright); Rosa Parks (Iris Little-Thomas); Coretta King (Carmen Ejogo); Ralph Abernathy (Terrence Howard); JoAnn Robinson (CCH Pounder); E.D. Nixon (Reg Cathey); Fred Gray (Shawn Michael Howard); Emory Jackson (Clark Johnson); Clifford Durr (Jack Martin); Mayor Gayle (Mert Hartfield); Commissioner Parks (Danny Nelson); Commissioner Sellars ( Tom Nowicki); Bayard Rustin (Erik Todd Dellums); Daddy King (Mike Hodge).
Themes: Racism & injustice; struggle for freedom; courage; non-violence; Christian love; teachings of Christ.
Scriptures: Amos 5:24; Hebrews 10:39; Matt. 5:38-46
This excellent HBO film not only offers an opportunity for a group to explore the origins of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to examine non-violence—for some in the film a tactic, but for others, such as Bayard Rustin, a way of life. I have not read the book it is based on, Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom, but I have read Dr. King’s Stride Toward Freedom and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, so I can say that the filmmakers have been very careful in sticking close to the historical facts, far more than is the usual case.
The indignities endured by Negro (we will use that 1950’s term herewith) passengers, the arrest of a teenager (hers was one of several before that of Rosa Parks)—these are well demonstrated in the opening montage of scenes. When Ms. Parks is arrested, it is the Negro women, already organized as the Women’s Political Council, who determine this time to boycott the buses. We see Jo Ann Robinson (CC Pounder) late at night running off the flyers announcing the boycott, and then aided by other women, distributing them to churches and individuals around the city. Dr. King enters the picture when the ministers meet with the women and concerned men such as E.D. Nixon (Reg E. Cathey), a member of the Negro Pullman Worker’s Union and long-time advocate for justice in Montgomery. After a lot of wrangling, during which Nixon pointedly urges the group to do more than talk, Dr. King is nominated and elected to chair the group overseeing the boycott.
The ups and downs of the struggle are all shown, including Dr. King’s becoming so fearful for the safety of his family that he starts carrying a gun tucked beneath his belt; the arrival of New Yorker Bayard Rustin, who both urges non-violence as a way of life, and who helps the locals see the national and international meaning and impact of what they are doing. Scattered throughout the film are cameos of citizens, mostly white, voicing their prejudices, their overly-confident predictions of failure, and an occasional diatribe of hatred, all of which help provide us with the context of the heroic struggle. Often using a handheld camera, the filmmakers give us a passionate, engaging picture of fast-paced events and of the cost of the victory.
Note: This film tells the story mainly of the “generals” of the war on racism: to see an up-close picture of a foot soldier, see the wonderful The Long Walk Home, also available on DVD, telling the story of a Negro maid and her effect upon her white employer. (My first Praying the Movies book has a devotional based on a scene from this film, and my book from which this is taken, Films & Faith, contains 39 other study guides, and .)
- 1) What does the opening montage reveal about the plight of “Negroes” on Montgomery’s buses at the time? How is Rosa Parks treated like a criminal for refusing to yield her seat? Why do you think the filmmakers decided to film the sequence of her arrest in black and white? What effect does this have on the viewer? How does the sound of shots enhance the feeling of her isolation?
- 2) What is going on in the scene of the mimeograph machine? Who is duplicating the petition to boycott the buses—was it ministers or laity? (Note that the woman in charge is Jo Ann Robinson. She preferred working quietly behind the scenes, partly because of her nature, but also because she did not want to jeopardize her teaching position at Alabama State College. Thus we see her often in the film, but more in the background than participating in the dialogue.)
- 3) Was Rosa Parks’ husband enthusiastic about her role in the test case? What were the probable reasons for his reluctance? What kinds of pressure did the white establishment exert on Negroes who threatened the status quo (some of which we see later)?
- 4) How does E.D. Nixon at first regard the ministers of his community? Any idea why? (Fearful of their positions, they had been of little support to him over the years in his struggle for racial justice, and, most telling, they had at first balked at signing their names to the petition for better treatment on the buses.) Have you seen similar cases of the laity leading (or goading to action) their hesitant leaders?
- 5) How does Dr. King’s first speech to the crowd elevate their struggle? (“If we are wrong, then…”)
- 6) In the first of many clips we see the Mayor making a public statement. How does this show that he understands nothing of the temper of his Negro constituents? What were some of the comments of other whites that are shown? How do the Mayor and the other whites underestimate their opponents? What does the statement that “we’ll wear grooves in the payment” reveal of the boycotters’ determination?
- 7) What do you think of the organization of the taxis and car pools? How does the police harass them?
- 8) Why do you think the head of Dr. King’s church board calls him on the telephone? What had happened to Dr. King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church? (For the full story of the iconoclastic pastor, Rev. Vernon Johns, see the excellent 1994 film The Road to Freedom: the Vernon Johns Story, starring James Earl Jones.)
- 9) How does the film refuse to make “saints” of either Dr. King or the boycotters? (Scenes of their arguing; Dr, King’s fear that leads him to carry a gun; the fussing of some car owners over soiling the interior of their cars; their fear of jail.)
- 10) What do you think the frustrated man means when he asks Dr. King “When are we going to fight back?” The minister replies that the Bible says they are to love enemies, but the man replies that “an eye for an eye” is also in the Bible: how might you respond to this? Bayard Rustin, while chiding Dr. King for carrying a pistol, says that non-violence is not just a tactic, but also “a way of life.” What do you think is the difference? We see Dr. King writing that “we are using the weapons of love.” What are these “weapons”? (Note: this is similar to the phrase that French pastor Andre Trocme used when he lead his people to defy Nazis to hide Jews—“weapons of the spirit,” as shown in the wonderful documentary Weapons of the Spirit, as well as in the fictionalized version La Chambon. Both films are on video and would make a good follow-up to this session to demonstrate how the powerless can turn to a greater power than hatred and violence in resisting oppression.)
- 11) Gandhi is mentioned in regard to non-violence (one scene being when Coretta recalls having heard Dr. Rustin speak when she was a student at Antioch College). This would be a good time to recall (or watch) the film Gandhi: how did the Indian revolutionary combine the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with those of Thoreau and his own Hinduism? (For more on non-violence see my books Praying the Movies (Meditations 15 on Babe: Pig in the City, and 19 on the War; also Praying the Movies II (Meditation 17 on Gandhi).
- 12) The whites are very much shown as the enemy: were there any in favor of the cause? Note that when Rustin is addressing the board, he starts with “The white man–,” then corrects himself, “Some white men…” Were you surprised to see at many of the planning meetings a white attorney? He is Clifford Durr: what price do you think he must have paid for his involvement? For what such support could entail see the memorable The Long Walk Home, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s Negro maid transforms her white employer, played by Sissy Spacek.
- 13) What does Bayard Rustin bring to the boycotters that was needed? What is “the bigger picture” that he helps them to see? How does he deepen Dr. King’s commitment? Why does he have to leave in the midst of the boycott? How could his past have been used to harm the cause of the boycotters? Note that the charge of “Communism” was used by segregationists throughout the 1960’s in an attempt to discredit the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders. Does such a charge carry much weight today? What about Rustin’s sexual preference: how could it be used to discredit a cause?
- 14) How would you feel if firemen stood by and did nothing to save your burning house? What do you think of Dr. King’s quoting for Dixon the passage from Hebrews? How is Dixon in danger of losing his “soul” in the struggle for justice? How has this happened in the past—such as in the French or Russian Revolutions? What happened to many of the African American civil rights leaders when non-violence did not seem effective enough to them?
- 15) Because of the largely middle class background, what was one of the greatest fears of the boycotters when virtually all the leaders were placed under arrest by the court? What does Bayard Rustin say to the people that helps dispel this? How does the climactic scene of the people marching show that they have overcome this fear? That is, what is their destination? What was the effect on the white policemen? How is this a fitting climax to the film, rather than continuing on in detail (though we are briefly shown the boycott leaders getting on the newly desegregated bus—not entirely accurate, in that Dr. King did ride the bus on that first day of a new era.)? Where do you see the God of justice in the film? The personal or nurturing God?