Get off the bus

HBO’s Boycott doesn’t whitewash civil rights

HBO’s original film Boycott makes a radical step by taking a chapter of the struggle for civil rights and dramatizing it from the black perspective. In a perfect world that wouldn’t be unusual, but as it is, it’s surprisingly rare.
Worried about box office prospects, the majority of films produced about the civil rights era, slavery or apartheid frequently begin from a white point of view, from Mississippi Burning to Amistad to Cry Freedom. Some prove to be worthy efforts that do justice to African-American struggles, like The Long Walk Home, but more often they share the flaws of Ghosts of Mississippi, which shows Alec Baldwin heroically prosecuting the murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers but never adequately explaining what Evers actually did.
Fortunately, Boycott’s account of the pivotal Montgomery bus boycotts of the mid-1950s doesn’t succumb to that kind of whitewash. Instead, the HBO film (which debuts Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.) keeps its focus on the black community and does so with a lively narrative style that shifts from documentary to conventional fiction filmmaking techniques. Boycott can falter in making a fully satisfying drama of historical events, but the events themselves are never less than compelling.
Boycott consistently avoids clichés of historical movies about African-American struggles. For instance, the music of such movies, apart from the occasional blues riff, tends to be gospel, typically sung by a mournful soloist or an exultant choir. But Boycott’s opening credits feature Beverly Crawford’s lush version of Bob Dylan’s “Serve Somebody” over scenes of black Alabamans paying fare at the front of the bus, then going around to get on at the back. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Swing Low Sweet Cadillac,” with its mix of gospel and jazz, wittily proves a recurring tune later in the film.
The story begins on the December day of 1955 when Rosa Parks (Iris Little-Thomas) refuses to give up her seat to a white passenger (played, incidentally, by Creative Loafing’s Steve Warren). Montgomery’s black community, in an uproar over her arrest and prosecution, suggests a one-day bus boycott as an act of protest. The action is organized by the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, which unexpectedly elects as its president a 26-year-old “hotshot preacher from Atlanta,” Martin Luther King Jr. (Jeffrey Wright).
Chosen because he’s only recently moved to Montgomery and has less to lose, King proves more effective than any of his fellow preachers could have imagined. His sermons provide inspiration for the participants while he leads negotiations with Montgomery’s white power structure, who assert that the “illegal” boycott is not voluntary but enforced by “nigra goon squads.” Humor arises from efforts to organize carpools, while tension comes from white pressure tactics, ranging from anonymous harassment of King and family to increased traffic tickets for “driving while black.”
Wright, whose vivid drug dealer proved the most memorable character in Shaft, proves a fine choice for King. He doesn’t have MLK’s rich depth of voice, but he effectively echoes King’s cadences and body language while in the pulpit. Boycott makes a point of showing King in his human dimensions, using faux home movies to show his robust love for wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and their child. We see his scholarly side, as he hits the books to prepare his sermons, but also how he’s not above wearing red pajamas or playing a juke joint game of pool. And when Wright prays alone in a kitchen, we share King’s anxieties at being inadequate to meet the enormous challenges at hand.
A disappointing aspect of Boycott is that the other roles aren’t as fully developed. Jo Ann Robinson (CCH Pounder), Rev. E.D. Nixon (Reg E. Cathey) and earthy Ralph Abernathy (Terrence Howard) are on hand, along with other significant figures from this point in history, but most are supporting roles that we scarcely get to know.
The only other character who emerges as intriguing in his own right is Bayard Rustin, a writer, homosexual and former communist who teaches the Montgomery protesters how to raise their profile on the national stage while hewing more closely to Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence. Waspish and urbane with the thinnest of mustaches, Erik Todd Dellums’ Rustin rather resembles an African-American John Waters, and one wishes he had more screen time.
Formerly titled Daybreak of Freedom, Boycott was filmed in and around Atlanta, Griffin and Covington, and casts such resident actors as Whitman Mayo and Thomas Byrd. Director Clark Johnson (formerly of “Homicide: Life on the Street”) blends numerous filmmaking techniques, from colorful fantasies and surreal images of Klansmen walking through suburban sidewalks to black-and-white archival material that’s both genuine and imitation. Man-on-the-street interviews, as if a 1990s-style news crew was on the scene of 1956 Montgomery, provide all conceivable opinions about the events.
Boycott ultimately runs up against the problem faced by many historical films in taking actual events and fitting them into the structure of narrative drama. The boycott itself lasted 381 days, and there are only so many ways you can show people not riding Montgomery’s banana-yellow buses. The film tends to go in circles in the middle, and has trouble finding a suitably “big” moment for its climax.
At least Boycott effectively argues the case that the Montgomery events gave birth to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and that King, Parks, Abernathy et al were the right people in the right place at the right time. And by paying such close attention to black Americans on the front lines of the struggle, as opposed to well-meaning but unimportant whites on the periphery, Boycott keeps its eyes on the prize.