Freedom Summer

Directed by Stanley Nelson

In the summer of 1964, more than 700 students descended on violent, segregated Mississippi. Defying authorities, they registered voters, created freedom schools, and established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Fifty years later, eyewitness accounts and never-before-seen archival material tell their story. Not all of them would make it through.


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  • ★★★½ review by Shaun Munro on Letterboxd

    Director Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) meticulously recounts the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, where over 700 largely white student activists visited the segregated state in order to break down the various barriers preventing blacks from voting en masse, while enduring increasingly violent resistance from the white locals. An uplifting and simultaneously disturbing account of the struggle merely to have a voice heard, Freedom Summer is a doggedly journalistic look at one of the most important civil rights battles in recent human history.

    Employing judiciously-edited archive footage that's alternately uplifting and sickening while overlaying new talking head interviews with many of the focal subjects, Nelson's film is a powerful artifact almost by default; to observe just how hateful and protective the local whites were of their community will likely prove shocking to contemporary audiences (especially younger viewers less acquainted with the context), considering just how short a period of time 50 years truly is.

    Impressively, though, Nelson does take the time (albeit briefly so) to talk to the other side, too, interviewing an elderly member of the Citizens' Council (described in the film as "the apparatus of a white supremacist society"), providing a little more perspective to the racial tensions of the time (disgusting though they still are). More so than many similar documentaries and films from the time, Nelson is keen to engage with the psychology behind the racist mentality, to understand it, and where possible, to change it; though it's easy to dismiss the hateful whites as cartoonish, evil pigs, there are some decidedly more interesting considerations at work here (namely, that many simply lacked the strength to go against the grain).

    Regardless, the methods employed to stop blacks voting are deceptive in the extreme and numerous, be it cutting off their financial security, firing them from their jobs, and worse still, even lynching and murdering the black voters and white members of the Freedom Summer movement. In addition, FBI J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon B. Johnson come across as even more unlikeable than viewers might already expect, unwaveringly devoted in their determination to hold the black community at bay as far as possible, with Nelson acquiring some shocking, perversely hilarious audio clips of their conversations about the movement.

    A fascinating document regardless of your own knowledge of the era, Freedom Summer is a powerful, potent social primer edited for maximum impact and efficiency.

  • ★★★★★ review by Lowbacca on Letterboxd

    Ultimately, documentaries are about, clearly, documenting something. And, of course, this is most useful when what you're documenting isn't something that's commonly known, or the perspective is unique and valuable. This film does all of that, and it's the first time I've ever watched a film where at the end, I could hear multiple people talking about the things they didn't know about until watching this, and were surprised they didn't know about. Being that clear a conduit of information is, alone, a great mark of how good this film is.

    The focus is on the summer of 1954 when college students flooded into Mississippi to help African-Americans register to vote, make up for deficiencies in education with Freedom Schools, and attempt to replace the all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention with an integrated delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, started that summer.

    The story is told not just with stock images, and video and audio recordings that are extremely eye-opening, but by a great selection of interviews. There's a good balance of interviews with black organizers in Mississippi, black supporters in the South (such as those that provided places to stay), organizers outside Mississippi, and both black and white participants in Freedom Summer, as well as a member of the Citizens' Council, a dominant force in Mississippi to preserve segregation and stop black citizens from being allowed to exercise their right to vote. The story is told in such a way that it really does feel like they capture all sides of this, both the inner conflicts with the different groups within the Freedom Summer, how the activists interacted with the black Mississippians, and how all these groups faced the threats posed by the dominant portion of the white population trying to preserve the status quo.

    The way it covers all this really is powerful, and the emotions that come from many of the interviews are very raw, and at points very honest. I really do like how often interviewees talked about not just their experiences, but compared and contrasted them quite interestingly, and it paints this great detailed picture about the dynamics in Mississippi in 1964, as well as the politics and risks of the situation.

    I walked out feeling like I understood so much more about what happened, and realizing that it's an absolute shame that so many of these things were stuff that I've never come across, and clearly so much of the audience hadn't, but at least these stories are being told now. An exceptionally informative film, as well as very powerful.

  • ★★★★ review by M G on Letterboxd


    -A recounting of the tension on first meeting between the mostly African American COFO staff and the mostly white college student volunteers.

    -The recollections of a White Citizen's Council member whose views have apparently not changed. (He was not, so far as I could tell, edited to sound crazy.)

    -Extended footage of James Chaney's funeral.

    -Audio and footage of an anxious LBJ, including the press conference he called to preempt the broadcast of Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony to the credentials committee at the 1964 Convention of the Democratic Party.

    ... and there's a bunch of other material I hadn't seen before. Worth seeing.

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