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Filmmaker Stanley Nelson Discusses "Freedom Riders" at STLCC-Meramec

April 28, 2011

Stanley Nelson  
Stanley Nelson's documentary, "Freedom
Riders," premiers on PBS May 16.

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson recently visited St. Louis Community College’s Meramec campus to discuss his latest documentary, “Freedom Riders,” which tells the story of a group of individuals whose efforts to challenge racial segregation transformed the civil rights movement.


Based on Raymond Arsenault’s book, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” Nelson’s documentary is the first feature-length film about this event, which occurred 50 years ago almost to the date. Beginning in Washington, D.C., a band of about 400 civil rights activists – black and white, young and old, male and female, Northern and Southern – risked their lives by deliberately violating Jim Crow laws and traveling together on buses as they journeyed through the Deep South. Greeted by mob violence and bitter racism along the way, many endured savage beatings and even imprisonment. 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.


The film, part of the PBS series “American Experience,” premieres on PBS May 16.


“It’s a real gift to make a film and tell this history,” Nelson said. “The Freedom Riders are not household names, but without the incredible courage these people showed, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”


Nelson tells the story through first-person accounts, rare film footage and still photos – without narration.


“When you tell history and add this layer of emotion to it, then you have something really special,” Nelson said. “Without narration, you have to tell the story in a certain way because there is no one to tie it together. You as a viewer have to do that, and as you see it, you make those connections in a deeper, more powerful way.”


As he’s traveled across the country in advance of the television premiere, Nelson said he’s most amazed by the energy the film has created.


“This is a story about all these people who had a lot to risk doing things that added up to be great – that’s what any movement is about,” Nelson said. “Particularly the group that continued the ride out of Nashville, they were so connected. As a group, they did things that were impossible to do as individuals. The love and the joy they had for one another is what made them so incredibly brave. People really have connected with that.”


Best known for his films focusing on African-American experiences, Nelson received the Contemporary Cinema Award from the St. Louis International Film Festival last November. The award honors filmmakers in mid-career for their challenging and innovative work. “Freedom Riders” was selected as one of the top five documentaries shown at the festival by the St. Louis Film Critics Association.


Nelson has had five films in competition at the Sundance Film Festival during the past 10 years, including “Freedom Riders.” He has won dozens of industry awards, including the Emmy and the Peabody. “A Place of Our Own” is another of his acclaimed works.