Stripping away the platitudes and feel-good generalizations of so many civil-rights documentaries, Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Riders” is a superb piece of filmic journalism. As it recounts the often astonishing story of the titular activists with a flair for telling details and a visceral degree of suspense, the pic declines to exploit the events for a quick motivational hit, and it’s ultimately all the more inspiring for it. A Sundance entry slated for a run on PBS, the docu should have long, healthy life in ancillary.

The story of the Freedom Riders movement is one which which most Americans are familiar, in part thanks to a segment on the PBS civil-rights docu series “Eyes on the Prize.” But the more deeply one delves into the story of these integrationists’ activism through the segregated South, the more improbable the whole saga may seem to those who didn’t live through it.

In 1961, two groups of activists, consisting of blacks and whites, from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), set off from Washington, D.C., on interstate bus lines bound for New Orleans, with the intention of provoking local segregation laws by riding, eating and lodging together. Things went smoothly until the buses reached Alabama, where they were each attacked by mobs in separate incidents; the buses were destroyed, and the riders badly beaten.

With the CORE riders halted, a new group of activists from a different organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, set off from Nashville to provide re-enforcements. From there, the story takes an increasingly amazing series of turns — there are secret latenight limousine rides to the state lines, a potentially psychotic police chief conspiring with the Ku Klux Klan, a governor in hiding, power struggles between the Kennedy administration and state officials, bomb threats, shifty FBI informants, postal workers outfitted as state marshals, unconstitutional imprisonments and several last-second escapes — all culminating in an act of national solidarity that would seem impossibly over-the-top had it been written into a fiction film.

Narrating the events in day-by-day segments, Nelson is masterful at conveying the activists’ actual experience — a combination of uncertainty, exhilaration and abject terror — as well as underscoring the extreme danger in which they knowingly placed themselves. Interviews with riders, Kennedy aides and witnesses are emotional and far-ranging, and segregationist Alabama Gov. John Patterson even appears to defend himself with a rascally sense mischief that would be almost charming, were it not so despicable.

Pic is not interested in deification: The Kennedys might have been sympathetic to the civil-rights movement, but they were not above selling out the riders to state authorities in the interest of political expediency. And even Martin Luther King Jr. is shown to have “feet of clay,” as the film puts it, when he supports the riders in public and then privately offers unconvincing reasons for not joining them. Yet that’s part and parcel of the film’s clear yet unspoken message: the ability of ordinary people to effect great social change.

On a technical level, the pic is assembled with great skill, and the archival footage and photography is extensive and surprising — including everything from Czechoslovakian state news reports to film footage of King and the riders trapped inside a church while a mob rages outside.

Freedom Riders

  • Production: A Firelight Media production for American Experience. Produced by Laurens Grant, Stanley Nelson. Executive producer, Mark Samels. Directed, written by Stanley Nelson, based in part on a book by Raymond Arsenault.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Robert Shepard; editors, Lewis Erskine, Aljernon Tunsil; music, Tom Phillips; music supervisor, Rena Kosersky; sound designer, Margaret Crimons; associate producer, Stacey Holman. Reviewed at Pan-African Film Festival (closer), Culver City, Feb. 17, 2010. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 115 MIN.
  • With: With: John Lewis, Genevieve Houghton, Mae Frances Moultrie, Jerry Ivor Moore, Raymond Arsenault, Diane Nash, Charles Person, John Seigenthaler, John Patterson, Julian Bond, Jim Zwerg, Catherine Burks-Brooks.Narrator: Stanley Nelson.