“Freedom Riders” documents the six months in 1961 that changed America forever. From May until November 1961, more than 400 Black and White Americans — mostly students — risked their lives, endured the most inhumane savagery, and imprisonment — for traveling together on Interstate buses and trains through the Deep South. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws in order to test and challenge a segregated interstate travel system, the Freedom Riders met with unimaginable violence at the hands of their fellow Americans and often incited or supported by local law enforcement. From award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (“Wounded Knee,” “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” “The Murder of Emmett Till”) Freedom Riders examines the rides and the riders using their own narratives.

Throughout the 1970s, fires consumed the South Bronx. Black and Puerto Rican residents were blamed for the devastation even as they battled daily to save their neighborhoods. In “Decade of Fire,” Bronx-born Vivian Vázquez Irizarry pursues the truth surrounding the fires — uncovering policies of racism and neglect that still shape urban cities and offers hope to communities on the brink today. Through a rich seam of archival and home movie footage, Decade of Fire confronts the racially-charged stereotypes that dehumanized residents of the South Bronx in the 1970s, and rationalized their abandonment by city, state and federal governments. Vázquez Irizarry, in her role as the film’s central character and co-director seeks not only healing for her community, but to redeem them from the harmful mythology spread by the media that has continued largely unchallenged to this day. She tells the story of a people who held on, worked to save their community, and start anew against impossible odds.

Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old Black mother and sharecropper, was gang-raped by six white boys in 1944 Alabama. Common in Jim Crow South, few women spoke up in fear for their lives. Not Recy Taylor, who bravely identified her rapists. The NAACP sent its chief rape investigator, Rosa Parks, who rallied support and triggered an unprecedented outcry for justice. Our film exposes a legacy of physical abuse of Black women and reveals Rosa Parks’ intimate role in Recy Taylor’s story. An attempted rape against Parks was but one inspiration for her ongoing work to find justice for countless women like Taylor. The 1955 bus boycott was an end result, not a beginning. This is one of the most powerful and insightful documentaries this reviewer has screened in five decades, as it opens the discourse and unveils rape as a tool against integration, social equity, and racial justice. The book “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by the amazing historian Danielle L. McGuire initially unlocked the doors to such inquiry and this documentary works lock-step with it.

This 90-minute documentary challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century. For most Americans this is entirely new history. “Slavery By Another Name” gives voice to the largely forgotten victims and perpetrators of forced labor and features their descendants living today.

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, “Remember This House.” The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. “I Am Not Your Negro” is a radical, innovative examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and amazing archival material. Critics believe “I Am Not Your Negro” is a journey into Black history that connects the past of the civil rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. The film questions the creation of stereotypes and policies driven by the most fantastical beliefs about Others. In addition to synthesizing connections between the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin examines why white American felt compelled to create a mythological “Negro” as the embodiment of their racial angst.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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