THE DOCUMENTARY "Freedom Summer: American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Fifty years ago this past Saturday -- or June 21, 1964 -- three Congress of Racial Equality workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. While their remains would not be discovered for at least two months, this was to mark the beginning of "Freedom Summer," an initiative by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to boost black voter registration.

This film by Stanley Nelson (2011's "Freedom Riders") explains what happened before, but especially what happened next. Freedom Summer, which drew over 1,000 largely white volunteers to Mississippi to live with black families, had three basic goals. Besides registering blacks who had been systematically barred from voter rolls by white Mississippians and Jim Crow laws dating back a century, the committee wanted to establish "freedom schools" (to teach black history and literature) as well as create a black delegation that would challenge, or replace, Mississippi's all-white delegation at the forthcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. LBJ's reaction to the interlopers is the capper to the summer.

MY SAY "Freedom Summer" is the anti-"Mississippi Burning," Alan Parker's 1988 film starring Gene Hackman that absolutely roared with indignation and fury. It's the cool, calm and collected nonfiction counterpart, and, like Nelson's other documentary with "Freedom" in the title, absent malice or rancor. Maybe 50 years does heal the wounds, or maybe the witnesses to this historic summer -- even Schwerner's widow, Rita -- have the grim satisfaction of knowing they were on the right as well as winning side of history.

Or maybe emotion doesn't get in the way because there's so much story to tell: The last third alone is a Machiavellian yarn full of twists and betrayals that could easily fill an hour of program time. Yes, Johnson torpedoed the black Mississippi delegation -- left embittered and wondering what a summer surviving Molotov cocktails and church bombings had achieved. Nelson knows: Within a year, the president, who needed the Southern bloc to win re-election, had signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. Freedom Summer had bagged an even bigger prize.

BOTTOM LINE Exhaustive.


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