Film review: “Boycott”

A couple years ago, as part of a class on nonviolence, I watched a 2001 HBO docudrama entitled Boycott, and wrote a review of it on my livejournal, which I’ve decided to share over here.

Boycott tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr., the Montegomery Improvement Association (MIA), and their historic thirteen-month bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks for failing to give up her bus seat to a white person. The film, based on a book by Stewart Burns, stars Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King, and Terrence Howard as Reverend Ralph Abernathy.

One of the key things to understand about Boycott is that it’s a docudrama. That means, as my teacher explained it, that they have to cover all the main points, and beyond that, balance historical accuracy with dramatic necessity. They have to relate the historical facts of the story while still keeping it engaging and exciting. Which, to give the devil their due, the movie manages spectacularly.

I’ll get back to the story in a moment, but first I want to emphasize that because the film is a docudrama rather than a documentary, the details of the events portrayed should be taken with a grain of salt.

That said, the movie does contain certain historical facts that are contrary to some present misconceptions. For instance, there is (apparently) the myth that Rosa Parks was just a little old lady with tired feet who didn’t want to get up. In fact, Ms. Parks was already connected to the civil rights movement, and was at the time serving as secretary of the Montegomery chapter of the NAACP, which the film mentions. It also shows that Dr. King was basically conscripted into leading the MIA.

The story presented in Boycott is nothing short of breathtaking. The courage, commitment, ingenuity, and moral strength of the characters shines through in every scene, as they work tirelessly to hold their people together and maintain the boycotts, despite several underhanded tricks employed against them by the city.

The historical details sacrificed for the sake of story pay off in an electrifying narrative, packed with as much excitement and suspense as any action movie—and a great deal more heart. The climactic scene, with Dr. King and the other protest leaders turning themselves over to the city authorities to be arrested (one of the reasons for the Civil Rights’ movement’s success was that it overloaded the prisons) has almost palpable impact.

This is not just a movie for students of black history, or the civil rights movement, or Martin Luther King Jr.. It isn’t even just a movie for students of U.S. history or nonviolent movements (although it is an excellent resource for all of the above). It is a movie for the entire human race.

Personal Reaction: Don’t let my impeccable impartiality fool you into thinking I wasn’t utterly enchanted by Boycott. I was deeply moved by it, and touched, moreso than movies where the hero goes out to make the world a better place by killing a lot of unpleasant people who just happened to get on the filmmaker’s bad side.

The movie’s setup deserves a mention. Unlike typical American films these days, it does not work hard to introduce the audience to the characters and the plot, and it leaves many details for the viewer to guess about or intuit. This can get a little irksome (at least, for me it can) but the story remains largely coherent, so not much is lost.

The filming style is somewhat unorthodox, blending modern color footage with black-and-white footage and even (I’m pretty sure) some archival black-and-white footage, presumably to strengthen the sense of the historical.

As a final note on production details, Boycott features a beautiful soundtrack of songs that may have been specifically written for the Civil Rights movement.

And now for a few notes on characters:

Even someone as undereducated as I can tell that Jeffrey Wright looks nothing like Martin Luther King, but when he opens his mouth to give a speech, you know how he got the role. I dare say Mr. Wright’s delivery of fiery, inspirational rhetoric would make the good Reverend King proud. Beyond the soapbox, Mr. Wright’s portrayal of a committed Dr. King, struggling against outside opposition and his own doubts is highly compelling. I don’t know how well Mr. Wright’s Dr. King succeeds as a realistic depiction of a genuine historical character, but as a cinematic character he succeeds very well.

Terrence Howard’s Reverend Ralph Abernathy makes a good counterpart to Wright’s King. It would be interesting to make a study of the two characters’ oratory style as presented by the film.

Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King is a nice blend of familial anxiety and progressive commitment. According to our teacher, he had occasion to discuss the movie with Ms. King before her death in 2006. He reported that she was not entirely happy with her portrayal in this film, and this is somewhat understandable. The Coretta King of Boycott comes across as little more than the wife of Martin Luther King, rather than a talented activist in her own right, which is a shame.

The last character I want to discuss is E. D. Nixon, as portrayed by Reg E. Cathey. Again, I don’t know the accuracy of the portrayal, but as a character in a story, Cathey’s Nixon is an unequivocal success. For some reason, I tend to gravitate most strongly to a side character in a given story. In Boycott, it was E. D. Nixon. Here is a man who is depicted succumbing to utterly human failings and then rising above them. When the city puts out warrants to arrest the leaders of the boycotts, it is Nixon who declares that they should not try to evade the warrants like criminals, and it is Nixon who first goes to the police station to turn himself in when the warrants go into effect.

Boycott features many more characters from the Montgomery bus boycott, whom I will not address in detail here, but who also played their part in making the movie a success.

There was an interesting incident midway through the boycott, when one of its leaders notes that the bus companies are going broke and willing to settle, but the city won’t let them. Let all my fellow leftists who think only Big Business oppresses the people take note.

One of the pitfalls of a standard documentary (it seems to me) is that they tend to give a certain air of inevitability to the events they portray. In previous accounts of nonviolent resistance I’ve seen, all events presented were those that, ultimately, reinforced the movement. Some negative aspects were mentioned, but only in passing.

Boycott however, gives one some sense of how just how hard the MIA’s members and the rest of Montgomery’s black community struggled to end the segregation. Though some of the city’s attempts to discredit and/or break up the boycotts may be fictionalized, they give the viewer a powerful sense of the danger not just to the individuals involved, but to the movement itself. Their success was not a foregone conclusion from the first time the boycott began. There were many times when the movement could have floundered, or the city could’ve gotten the best of it. The fact that this did not happen only makes the boycott’s success that much more powerful.

Bottom Line: Not the most fantastic film I’ve ever seen, but only because certain things I particularly like are beyond its’ scope, rather than it doing anything particularly bad. Highly recommended.

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