Oscar shorts: Civil rights activists see day they never expected
Four years ago, as Americans were facing the question of whether voters would elect the country’s first African American president, Bay Area resident Robin Fryday flew to Birmingham, Ala., to see how the nearing election was affecting a city so seeped in civil rights-era history. What she found was a project that became an Oscar-nominated documentary short.
“The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement,” a 25-minute short, is Fryday’s first film. The photographer began her research in Birmingham alone, and then –- fittingly through an introduction made by Fryday’s hairdresser -– she connected with co-director Gail Dolgin, who was nominated in 2003 for her documentary feature, “Daughter From Danang.” Dolgin died of cancer in 2010 and shares the nomination posthumously with Fryday.
The short puts a spotlight on people whom Fryday calls “the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement.”
“Many of them are dying, they’re elderly, so it was important to capture these stories,” Fryday said.
As Fryday and Dolgin documented them through the 2008 election -– a day that “most of them thought they would never live to see,” Fryday said -– they recalled their experiences fighting for the right to vote in an era when many blacks were barred from voting through literacy tests and poll taxes.
Central to the film is James Armstrong, who had owned a Birmingham barbershop from 1950 until shortly before his death in late 2009. Armstrong dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights. He got his two sons into an all-white elementary school, and he carried the American flag on Bloody Sunday in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Fryday met Armstrong after another interviewee asked her, “Have you met the barber?”
“It’s a tiny little barber shop, but every inch of space was covered with photographs and newspaper clippings and memorabilia from the civil rights movement,” Fryday said. “[When I first met him,] he had on his bow tie and his hat and his plaid pants and bright yellow shirt and a big smile on his face.… He had such charisma, and the shop was almost like a living museum.”
The film, which premiered at Sundance in 2011, includes footage from election day as Birmingham residents gathered to watch the results on television.
“In other parts of the country, there was such an energy and excitement in the air, but Gail and I were surprised at the almost calmness of the people in Birmingham,” Fryday said. “I think there was a fear that they didn’t want to get too excited.”
But there were plenty of expressions of enthusiasm once Barack Obama was announced the president-elect, as Birmingham residents clapped, cheered and danced in celebration, all captured on film for the short.
The month before the Oscars typically keeps any nominee busy with screenings, interviews and Q&As, but Fryday already had a packed February planned for her film with Black History Month events.
Among the events were screenings for high school and college students, including one in Birmingham before an audience of 600 high school seniors, followed by a panel discussion with 20 foot soldiers. Afterward, the students were invited to a set of tables full of voter registration forms.
“These kids were rushing to the tables to fill out their forms. It was so powerful to hear the students say that before seeing the film and hearing these stories they probably wouldn’t have voted,” Fryday said. “For me it was the most rewarding thing because this is what Gail and I had envisioned –- to educate the next generation.”
Fryday will continue to do just that as she finds more ways for the film to reach students. After her work with “Barber of Birmingham” is done, she hopes to make more films.
“When I first met Gail, the first thing she said to me was, ‘Be careful Robin, you’re gonna get hooked!’ And I have to say, she was right,” Fryday said.
“The Barber of Birmingham” is screening with other Oscar-nominated shorts across the U.S. and Canada. Dates and locations are on the website of ShortsHD, which is distributing the films for the special screenings. Check out a clip below:
The 84th Academy Awards will air live on ABC on Sunday.
–- Emily Rome
Photos: James Armstrong in the Oscar-nominated short "The Barber of Birmingham." Credit: ShortsHD