PBS released earlier this year what is one of its most intriguing documentaries of the year in Spies of Mississippi. Now the network will release the “companion” program to Spies of Mississippi next week in a new episode of American Experience. American Experience: Freedom Summer will be released on DVD next Tuesday, June 24th. This latest program centers on the civil rights movement of 1964 that was centered on Mississippi. American Experience: Freedom Summer is an excellent companion to the previously released documentary in that it goes into even more depth than that program. That is the first aspect of this program that makes it well worth the watch. Making it even more interesting is the use of vintage footage from the Freedom Summer. Sealing the deal for the program is its writing and editing. Writer/director Stanley Nelson and editor Aljernon Tunsil are both deserving of applause for making the roughly two hour program pass by with ease without losing viewers along the way. This factor along with the in-depth stories and vintage footage make American Experience: Freedom Summer a piece that everybody should see at least once this year.
American Experience: Freedom Summer is a program well worth the watch by any viewer first and foremost because it picks up where Spies of Mississippi left off. While that documentary focused primarily on the efforts on a covert group to try and keep African Americans from registering to vote in Mississippi, this latest feature on the Freedom Summer goes into even more depth. It focuses on more than just that one aspect of the Freedom Summer. Rather, it focuses on the Freedom Summer in whole. It presents the movement from its roots to its end. Along the way, it also connects the Freedom Summer to its effects on the country as a whole. The whole thing is told by those that organized the Freedom Summer movement and by those that it affected. It adds a whole new layer to the story that was started by Spies of Mississippi, making the program in whole even more worth the watch.
Mississippi’s civil rights movement in the summer of 1964 was one of the most important cultural events in America’s history. That is made clear through the combination of American Experience: Freedom Summer and Spies of Mississippi. The additional layers of information added to the story of that movement here are just part of what makes this program well worth the watch. Making the program even more interesting and in depth is the use of vintage footage to illustrate the story. Actual footage of the events that happened during the Freedom Summer is included throughout the program in place of re-enactments. The use of re-enactments would have been the easy way out. But those behind the program didn’t go that route. It’s nice to see that this avenue was taken. It serves to pull in viewers even more and keep them engaged along the way. This plays directly into the last factor of the program’s success. That factor in question is its collective writing and editing.
The use of vintage footage, and of interviews with those directly connected to the Freedom Summer movement are both integral to the success of American Experience: Freedom Summer. Just as integral to the feature’s overall success is the program’s writing and editing. Everything included in this program had to be scripted in a certain order. That order in turn had to be edited so as to keep viewers’ attention throughout the course of the program’s approximately two-hour run time. Writer/director Stanley Nelson and editor Aljernon Tunsil both did just that. There is not one moment over the course of the program’s two-hour run time during which the program loses audiences’ attention. The pair is to be applauded for such expert execution of their job duties. Because both individuals went to painstaking lengths to make the program interesting, it makes viewers want to take in the vintage footage and the stories told by those that were directly linked to the Freedom Summer movement. All of these factors together make American Experience: Freedom Summer a presentation that is just as valuable in the classroom as it is in the living room. It proves in the end to be a candidate for a spot on this critic’s list of the year’s best new documentaries.
Spies of Mississippi is one of the most important pieces that PBS will release this year. The documentary, which is based on author Rick Bowers’ 2010 book by the same name, first aired on PBS in 2013. It was just recently released on DVD last month. The primary aspect of this story that makes it so important is that it lifts the veil on a piece of civil rights (and American) history that few people know about. The second factor, in direct connection, is the story’s organization. The real story doesn’t start until late in the near hour-long feature. However, the setup toward that story is what makes it so important. And last but definitely not least of the notable aspects of this documentary is the inclusion of first person interviews, vintage footage and newspaper articles to help illustrate the story and advance it. All three aspects together make Spies of Mississippi an excellent starting point for what could lead to a much deeper investigation and documentary from PBS.
The primary aspect of Spies of Mississippi that makes it so important is that it lifts the veil on a piece of civil rights (and American) history that few people know about. People know about cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and the famous Greensboro sit-in among many others. But how many people can honestly say that they knew about the covert operations of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission? This “secret society” of sorts had one and only one goal. That goal was to prevent any possibility of blacks and whites from becoming integrated in America. This included keeping blacks from being able to even vote. Audiences that might be learning this story for the first time (much like this critic) will be amazed at the levels to which the MSSC would go to in order to achieve its goals. As they will learn, the MSSC even stooped to killing two white men that were helping members of the black community in their fight for equality. It even allegedly had African-Americans infiltrate groups such as the NAACP to keep track of what was going on so as to achieve its goals. These are just some of the revelations that will shock viewers seeing this story for the first time. One could almost compare the actions of the MSSC to the likes of what happened under McCarthy and the Red Scare. And in a time when the country is getting ready to go through state and local elections again, this documentary becomes all the more important.
The story contained in this DVD is the key aspect of the program’s success. By direct connection, the organization of the presentation adds to the program’s success. There are those that have noted just how short the “most important” part of the story received so little time. The part of the story in question was the portion outlining how the MSSC went to such great lengths to keep African-Americans from being able to vote. What said individuals perhaps don’t quite understand is that the first half of the presentation was a necessary evil. It was necessary in that it helped to set up the story in question. That being the case, both halves of the presentation become one whole that is easy to follow. In turn, the whole becomes a piece that any history buff, poly-sci buff or otherwise will appreciate.
The organization of Spies of Mississippi and its overall story work in conjunction to make this presentation an excellent starting point for what could be an even deeper examination of part of America’s hidden past. Both aspects show why this is one of PBS’ most important home releases of 2014. As impressive as they are, there is still one more piece of the whole to consider in this documentary. That final piece is the material that makes up the program. From one-on-one interviews with those closest to the MSSC to vintage footage and newspaper articles, Director Dawn Porter and her staff have included a number of items that help illustrate the story. Those items show just how important the scandal surrounding the MSSC was then and even how it relates to certain voting issues going on in America today. Viewers will be interested to hear from the supposed “Agent X” that was sent to infiltrate the civil rights movement among others. There is much more that audiences will take away from this presentation in watching it for themselves. And they can do so when they order the DVD direct from PBS’ online store at http://www.shoppbs.org/product/index.jsp?productId=29151026&cp=&kw=mississippi+spies&origkw=Mississippi+Spies&sr=1. More information on this and other programs from PBS is available online at http://www.pbs.org and http://www.facebook.com/pbs. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.