Rated NR (TV film). Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our Content Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0 .
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you…
Though he might not have regarded himself as “called,” certainly not in the way in which Jeremiah the prophet was, young Owen Walker during the summer of 1961 felt compelled to join in the struggle for justice when the SNNC workers came at last to his segregated town of Quinlan, Mississippi. He and his friends had been hearing about the sit-ins and freedom rides going on in other parts of the South, so he eagerly looked forward to the day when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would start a campaign for freedom in his town. When they do arrive, Owen finds himself caught up in a prophetic movement owing much to the cries and struggles for justice and truth of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But Owen soon finds himself coming up not only against the local police and white segregationists, but against his own father as well–indeed, his continued involvement in the Movement threatens to destroy his relationship with his parent.
The film opens with Owen singing the CR song “Ain’t Goin to Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” As the camera pans along from his face, we see the faces of a number of other teenagers and young adults, also singing. Then we see the bars of their jail cell. Owen narrates the story, taking us back to the time when he was a little child welcoming his father home from the War. As the uniformed Will gets off the bus and takes his boy up into his arms, he sees the large “Whites Only” sign in the window of the restaurant at the bus station. He says quietly into Owen’s ear, “You’re going to sit in there someday, son.” Will opens a gas station and sets out to bring his prediction true by urging his friends and neighbors to register to vote. One night gunfire breaks the silence, the bullets smashing the windows of their house and forcing the family to take cover on the floor. Will’s business drops off drastically, and when he tells a former customer he will have to close down if people don’t start coming back, his friend tells him that he and the others have been pressured into withdrawing their business because of Will’s attempt to get people to vote.
But the ruination of his business is not the worst that happens to Will. When little Owen strays into the bus station restaurant, a local tough holds him and orders Will to come in the forbidden place and retrieve his son. But before he will let the boy go, he orders Will to give him a spanking as a lesson. Knowing full well the danger he is in, Will enters, but tries to delay punishment until later. Wanting Will’s full humiliation the bigot orders him to do it now. Will accepts the offered chair and takes his little son over his knee. He bends down and whispers the same words he had said earlier, “You’re going to sit in here someday, son.” It is a moment seared into Owen’s memory, one which is the beginning of the wedge between father and son.
By the time of SNNC’s arrival, Owen has long since given up any activity that might bring down the wrath of the white powers upon him. He has worked hard and been able to provide a home and a comfortable way of life for his son and wife. He does not want anything to jeopardize what he has achieved, so he orders Owen to have nothing to do with the coming demonstrations. In this sense the Walker family is like many Mississippi African American families of the time. The older generation had worked hard, getting along as best they could with the white power structure, and fervently hoping that their children would have a better life through education. But the very education given their children contributed to their questioning the way things were–and when leaders who were not much older than the teenagers themselves came along and promised that segregation could be attacked and defeated, many defied their parents and jumped at the opportunity. (It should also be pointed out that other African American adults, such as Amzie Moore in Cleveland and Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville did become CR leaders, despite threats and intimidation.)
The town and family in “Freedom Song” are fictional, but the incidents are based on actual occurrences, thanks to the cooperation of a number of former SNCC leaders who served as consultants. Unlike “Mississippi Burning,” which distorted Mississippi history by depicting white FBI agents as heroes, this Danny Glover-produced film gets it right by showing that ordinary African Americans rose to heroic heights in the furtherance of their freedom. Later, as in the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, whites did join in the struggle (mostly from the North–I was one of them), but the original heroes were, and continued to be, the people who had to live in the community after the sit-ins and demonstrations were over.
The film brings out well some of the humor of the Movement that was almost as important as the singing. In one scene the SNCC leaders call a meeting, one that the owner of the house and all concerned hope will be a short one. But SNNC operated on a consensus basis, rather than a voting system in which one side won and the other lost. Any disagreement must be discussed from every possible angle until a compromise agreement was reached. So the meeting, supposedly a short one, that begins in the late afternoon goes on past supper, and into the night, and into the wee hours of the morning, until finally everyone agrees. No one ever said that democracy is quick and easy.
With Sweet Honey in the Rock providing many of the stirring Freedom Songs so dear to the Movement, and David Horner (of “Titanic” fame) the musical score, watching the film is truly an inspiring experience, one worth sharing with the youth of your church or family.