Will Walker Danny Glover
Owen Walker Vicellous Reon Shannon
Daniel Wall Vondie Curtis Hall
Evelyn Walker Loretta Devine
T-Bone Lanier Glynn Turman
Archie Mullen Stan Shaw
Coleman Vaughnes Michael Jai White
Jonah Summer John Beasley
Isaac Hawkins Jason Weaver
Dora Charles Rae Ven Larrymore Kelly
Tyrone Franklin Marcello Thedford
Peter Crowley David Strathairn
The most basic victories of the early Civil Rights movement aren’t readily part of the historical record. Phil Alden Robinson’s tribute to the grassroots efforts of groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its unwavering courage in the face of racism is a triumph of filmmaking.
Crafted from real-life experiences of SNCC members, Robinson and Stanley Weiser have formulated a bittersweet and extremely personal tale about the young men and women on the front lines of the battle against racism in the South of the early ’60s. At the heart of the story is Owen Walker (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young man torn by devotion to his father and the need to address the racial inequities in his hometown in rural Mississippi, 1961.
Owen is bitter that his father, Will (Danny Glover), has recanted on his early attempts to organize the black community and has retreated to a non-confrontational lifestyle. Hungry for justice and equality, Owen joins fellow high school students in a crusade to desegregate his hometown.
The painstaking process of redirecting inbred racism and the incremental victories won by the peaceful practices the SNCC endorses frustrates the impatient Owen. He’s further confounded when, looking to find a mentor and leader, is met with the soft-spoken, philosophizing Daniel Wall (Vondie Curtis Hall).
Owen and his classmates soon learn, however, that organizing voter registrations and protest marches come at a hefty price.
The fictional town of Quinlan is deep in the heart of Klan country, and while Robinson is unblinking in his portrayal of the horrors and injustices of this place and time, the movie is more about the love and inspiration that is borne out of such a righteous fight. His direction provides a detailed recollection not only of the Mississippi that is infamous for its hate crimes, but of the place that Owen and his father love and are willing to fight for, each in his own way. It’s a mood greatly aided by Amelia Vincent’s artfully wrought lensing, which evokes intimacy through frequent closeups and hand-held shots.
The acting is outstanding from the principals – including Glover, Shannon and Curtis – down to supporting players such as Stan Shaw, Michael Jai White and John Beasley. In fact, the talent pool in this film is so deep, it may suffer from “L.A. Confidential” syndrome, where too many good perfs may actually neutralize any shot these thesps have at awards.
The film mainly showcases Shannon – who proves his emotional turn in “The Hurricane” was no fluke – and Curtis, whose understated turn is one of his best to date. Glover gets top billing, and his performance is powerful despite limited screen time.
Pic is further enhanced by a cappella performances of traditional spirituals and protest songs by Grammy winners Sweet Honey in the Rock, and original works from Oscar-winning composer James Horner (“Titanic”).
Linda Burton and Linwood Taylor’s production is incredibly detailed and, though undetectable to the viewer, includes the original chairs – on loan from the Smithsonian – from the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro N.C., the scene of one of the first sit-down protests.
While other networks mainly repackage their lineup to fulfill Black History Month obligations, this TNT original embodies the spirit of the pioneering freedom fighters who put their lives on the line for the good of future generations. It’s a story that reminds us that some history lessons shouldn’t be relegated to a single month.