A Potent Doc About A Town In The Heart Of Jim Crow Alabama [Review]
Jan 19, 2023
The Civil Rights movement is composed of singular heroes: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, and so forth. Their iconoclastic memory has come to define the entire collective effort during the 1950s, 60s, and 1970s by many organizations. They, of course, do not tell the whole history of the coordinated action that occurred during the era. Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard’s “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” a swift, potent documentary about a town nestled in the heart of Jim Crow Alabama, aims to rectify that misunderstanding.
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In 1965, the hamlet of Lowndes was 80% Black but with no registered voters. Even so, in a present-day interview, one of the white residents recalls the segregated area as an idyllic place.
For the filmmakers, Lowndes County, Alabama, is a fascinating unknown case study intricately framed within a broader protest: The longest stretch of MLK’s famous march to Selma wound through the rural roads of what locals called Bloody Lowndes. The town folks, however, didn’t need a grand demonstration to ignite their political awakening. They began demanding voting rights in the early 1960s with the arrival of John Hulett and later the members of SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who preached the philosophy of broad, sustainable grassroots action championed by Ella Baker. Under Baker’s system of thought, if you give people the tools for change, then they become less reliant on singular leaders.
The belief makes “Lowndes County” an absorbing companion piece to Pollard’s “MLK/FBI,” a film about the importance of voices within the Black community and the government’s attempt to dismantle those figures in the hopes of causing the movement to crumble. “Lowndes County” demonstrates how the impact of such tactics could have been lessened if an entire people were not dependent upon the guidance of one person. Similar to “MLK/FBI,” this film primarily uses restored archival footage of the speeches and interviews made by SNCC activists like Stokely Carmichael and Ruby Sales to recount how the town formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, in an effort to elect Black folks to local government offices.
It would’ve been easy for the filmmakers to keep this story sealed within the amber-coated confines of the past: Sixty years ago, the idea of changing the system from within was an accepted tactic. Now, with the emergence of Black cops, Senators, and a president and vice president in the span of the last decade, we’ve come to question the viability of such thought. Still, no one would blame Gandbhir and Pollard if the pair sidestepped such contemporary landmines. But they don’t.
They instead chart a path, by way of Viridiana Lieberman’s deliberate editing and Kathryn Bostic’s evocative, jazz-tinged score, toward an audacious ending that connects the concerns of the past with the travails of the present. In the process, “Lowndes County” graduates from a mere recounting of history to a charged roadmap that interrogates the continued missteps toward Black liberation that have occurred in the decades since.
It gives us the history of the Black Panther logo, it provides an oral legacy shared by the still-living movers and shakers, it gives life to a primarily little-known Black-led a movement that permanently altered the tactics of activists, and it speaks with a poetic, arresting tone that articulates the dreams that are still deferred. It’s all accomplished without deifying individuals but taking an interest in common, determined folks. And it does so in a brisk 90 minutes. Unlike other political documentaries, “Lowndes County” isn’t afraid to end on a bleak, truthful note. One that challenges our modern perception of what is better and what is merely different. It is, quite simply, one of the best documentaries of the year. [A]
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