“If we can’t sit at the table [of American democracy], let’s knock the fuckin’ legs off!” young activist James Forman told a crowd of reporters and organizers in the winter of 1965 at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, amidst the struggle against the American white power structure.
The scene cuts, and the audience witnesses original footage of Selma sheriffs — lead by Jim Clark — riding atop horses and swinging batons on the skulls of peaceful demonstrators protesting for the right to register to vote. One young woman is knocked unconscious; what appears to be blood trickles down her face.
This is the volatile scene that “The Bridge to Freedom,” a one-hour PBS documentary produced and directed by Callie Crossley, places the audience, as it chronicles the movement to gain Black enfranchisement in Selma, Alabama in the mid-1960s.
By slicing together interviews from organizers, citizens and public officials from all sides of the struggle, the film is informative and thorough. Using original, amateur footage from protests and conflicts, Crossley also compellingly instructs the audience that the fight for justice was not easy and was not met with open arms, as our high school history courses typically suggest. The audience is relentlessly reminded this as the narrative of the film is disrupted three times by murders of organizers and citizens.
When speaking on knocking “the fuckin’ legs off” American democracy, Forman was not only talking to reporters or Sheriff Clark; he was also addressing Martin Luther King Jr. This tension within the movement, between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — an activist organization headed by King Jr. and mostly comprised of reverends and other church leaders that practiced the doctrine of non-violence — and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee — a group of younger organizers headed by Forman who called for more militant forms of resistance — is just one of the many important and complex issues about organizing that the film interrogates.
Crossley also does an effective job at placing this struggle in the context of the national movement at-large. While thoroughly examining the issues in Selma, Crossley is able to reveal the systemic nature of the turmoil and oppression felt by Black citizens. Indeed, the audience is constantly reminded that Sheriff Clark is not the exception, but the rule.
Most importantly, the audience is shown that movements for justice come from the bottom-up. This is exemplified in Crossley’s handling of then-President Lyndon Johnson’s passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Crossley doesn’t dwell on this achievement, as mainstream history tends to do. Rather, she treats it for what it was: an important shift, but a shift in a still pervasively racist power structure, and a shift that was created by pressure from the actions of everyday people in Selma, a shift spurred by the grassroots of society.
The movie also doesn’t pretend that progress was inevitable, nor that justice was completely actualized when Selma citizens secured their right to register to vote.
In fact, this documentary is still relevant today amidst a plethora of state voter-ID laws that are undermining the same rights that were secured in Selma. Thus, the film should not be received as only a history lesson, but also as a call to action.