By K.L John
Wednesday, March 11, 2009.
This film licked off my head top. It is a simple yet thorough retelling of a familiar story which is made more powerful for its revelations. Who hasn't heard of Rev. Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks? Hardly anyone I imagine. But who has heard of Rev Ralph Abernathy, Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, or Fred Gray? And did anyone know that at 26, Rev. Martin Luther King was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association – formed to organise the boycott - and was thrust into the limelight in that capacity?
Same answers to both questions I imagine. There’s a scene in Boycott, in which Coretta Scott King recalls a guest speaker at her university saying that history is a choice not an accident and this idea is at the heart of Boycott.
Thus we have a truly compelling tale. The premise is that a group of essentially ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances responded with a sense of responsibility, courage and a passionate determination to fight prejudice using their experience of organisation and mass mobilisation. Notable are the performances – Jeffrey Wright as King has been likened to Denzel’s Malcolm X – and the number of very well-drawn characters, clearly thoughtful writing, a daring choice of cinematic techniques, and the struggles, man and weather-made, that the Montgomery Improvement Association faced.
The humanity - as opposed to saintliness - of the main protagonists is perhaps the most powerful element of the story. Margaret Mead said "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has" and this film demonstrates her point exceedingly well.
That black people, a pair of radical pastors, an English professor, a trade unionist, a lawyer, and activists from local community organisations could lead a movement which would forever alter the course of history was far more laughable then than it seems now.
Perhaps, with this is mind, Boycott deliberately blurs past and present. Obviously, through montages with contemporary soundtracks and more subtly, with vox pops by characters on both sides of the boycott who offer an insight into the thoughts of those whose names we'll probably never know, but who nonetheless gave shape to the movement, and whose opinions are timeless.
Eerily familiar are arguments throughout the film about what black people can and won’t do. In addition, hand-held cameras at certain points permit the experience of looking around at people at meetings, hearing the arguments and speeches given and their impacts on those present.
The film returns the women in the story to their rightful place at the heart of the movement, without whom there would have been no plaintiffs to make a case to the US Supreme Court; ‘let’s tell the truth, let’s tell the truth!’ an impassioned E.D Wilson argues and the film seems determined to do so.
Women were central to the work of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s work not simply as supportive wives, but as organisers, campaigners and volunteers; Rosa Parks’ pivotal role was the rule not the exception where women were concerned Boycott states. Equally, the film hints at the involvement of white activists who campaigned and worked alongside these black organisers, and used their positions in white society to suggest strategies and offer ‘insider’ knowledge.
More than a history lesson, Boycott weaves a wonderful tapestry of real people overcoming against all the odds. It acknowledges the overcoming of internal struggles: the difficulty of building a movement based on the principle of non-violence in the presence of uninvestigated lynchings is tackled. The politicking in religious and secular community organising is touched upon. Defeatism, fear, egos and cowardice are depicted alongside wisdom, sacrifice, courage, and solidarity.
Boycott breaks down the myth of superhuman freedom fighters and pays homage to the tenacity of the human spirit. One would be hard-pressed to dislike and not learn something from Boycott and its made-for-TV status makes its accomplishment all the more impressive.
Boycott is available to rent from LoveFilm and is on sale online at Amazon.co.uk
K.L John is The New Black Magazine's Francophone Correspondent.
Please email comments to email@example.com