Mean and ugly times
Durango Independent Film Festival brings Rosa Parks into local classrooms

by Judith Reynolds

Big Bill Broonzy’s tune, “Black, Brown & White,” cycles through a documentary about the Montgomery Bus Boycott like a wheel of conscience. “If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, get back.”

“Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks” is a swift, moving tale of segregation, bigotry, nonviolent resistance and ultimate victory. The still center is Rosa Parks. Rightly dubbed by Congress the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus for a white man and was arrested. Her quiet act of defiance on Dec. 1, 1955, sparked the minority community of Montgomery, Ala. By the following Monday morning, a citywide bus boycott had been organized, at first for one day only. But the boycott miraculously lasted 381 days. It crippled the city, though, creating hardship for the people who needed bus transportation. At the end, the Supreme Court struck down bus segregation, and a hard step toward equality had been achieved.

A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the film mixes eyewitness accounts, television news coverage, stills and contemporary voices from several generations. The film pays close attention to Parks, at the center of the controversy.

Director Bobby Houston and his cinematographer Geoff George employ a variety of visual techniques including a reenactment of the triggering event. These black-and-white sections are done in a hand-held documentary style that blends in with film footage of the time. The technique works. Since so many of the key events were public, there were plenty of witnesses to establish veracity.

Threats, night bombings and arson, of course, were conducted in secret, but film footage of the KKK and the aftermath of destruction exist.

The streets of Montgomery are very real to this reviewer having just returned from a trip there. The Martin Luther King Jr. Parsonage is now a small museum, decked with black wreaths in February to mourn the death of Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006). And it’s clear that the lessons of the boycott are still very much with the people. The stunning Civil Rights Museum, for example, has extremely tight security. It receives regular, serious threats. Across the street, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a fortress designed to withstand massive bomb attacks. In the last month outside Montgomery, 10 churches have been set afire. The struggle isn’t over in Alabama.

The film reminds us that during the early days of the boycott, a very young Rev. King, 27, stepped forward and became the leader of the movement. His parsonage was one of the many houses bombed or burned that year. King’s convictions and powerful presence kept the protest nonviolent.

This is an important American story, well told in the hands of these filmmakers. Wisely, they have incorporated members of Parks’ extended family. The youngest children have a grasp of their history, the struggle and the courage it takes to stand up to power. Perhaps it’s this element – the legacy – that makes the film a good choice for the new school program put together by festival organizers.

Lucky are the local children who will see “Mighty Times.” The Durango Independent Film Festival won’t, however, screen the film for the general public. If you’re a parent of a child who will see the film, ask about the legacy of Rosa Parks. She died in 2005, but her name is already in the history books as a champion of freedom. •