The inherent difficulty in making a film about the civil rights movement is that, as with World War II, its essential narratives and images have become so ingrained in the collective consciousness that they border on abstractions. In “Dare Not Walk Alone,” first-time helmer Jeremy Dean tries to sidestep the history-book buffer by zeroing in on a single, lesser-known chapter of the movement and its continuing aftershocks on the local community. Combining little-seen footage and revealing interviews with an activist zeal that trumps its sometimes muddled construction, pic opened April 25 in limited release, two years after its initial fest runs.
Set entirely in St. Augustine, Fla., pic begins in June 1964, when Martin Luther King Jr. and key members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference converged on the colonial resort town to protest its segregated beaches and hotels. Weeks of demonstrations and skirmishes eventually reached a head at the beachfront Monson Motor Lodge, where, after protesters “integrated” the hotel’s whites-only swimming pool, owner James Brock dumped hydrochloric acid into the water as TV cameras rolled.
Footage of that incident, as well as a vicious sequence in which SCLC vice president (and future U.N. ambassador) Andrew Young is beaten while riot police only halfheartedly intervene, have a startling immediacy. Dean handles the historical material with skill, insidiously intercutting vintage travel promos touting St. Augustine’s tourist-friendly beaches with sequences of mass chaos in the same locations.
Interviews with march veterans Young and Errol Jones are scattered throughout, but the most intimate focus is saved for acid-hurling motel owner Brock. Now 81, Brock is given surprisingly ample time to explain himself, and comes across less as a monster than as simply a quiet, small-town man who found himself suddenly thrust into the thick of history, with no idea how to handle it.
After celebrating the city’s triumph of ’64 (the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed just two weeks after the protests), the film moves to the present day, exploring the much darker repercussions of that year in a second half that is both messier and more ambitious. Dean frames modern St. Augustine as a city still uncomfortable with its past, where de jure segregation has been supplanted by systematic neglect and isolation.
Film finds a charismatic guide to these neighborhoods in a local aspiring rapper identified as Christoff. Touchingly naive and resolute in his conviction that hip-hop stardom will lift him out of extreme poverty, Christoff proves an ironic counterpart to the self-possessed leaders of the ’60s. When an end title tells us he’s since been imprisoned on a rather dubious-sounding charge, it feels both tragic and inevitable.
Ultimately, balancing the film’s two halves proves too heavy a burden to bear, and Dean’s attempt to end the film on an uplifting note falls very flat. Too often the tone is tentative when it should be incendiary, as though the filmmaker were intimidated by the implications of his own material, and some counterintuitive editing further dilutes the impact. Nonetheless, Dean’s ability to explore history through such a local nexus creates a uniquely intimate document.
Tech credits are solid for what was clearly a limited budget.