Sunday, April 18, 2010

Atlanta Film Festival report No. 1: "Crossing in St. Augustine"

You know, wi fi really is a crazy thing. On the other side of my hotel room, when I tried out the hotel's connection, I got nothing, but if you walk across the room and set up shop right by the front door, it comes in crystal clear. Bizarre.

But, less than one paragraph in, I already digress. This was supposed to be the first of three or so posts about the offerings at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, and from here on out it will be, specifically "Crossing in St. Augustine."

If you've never heard of this flick, I wouldn't be surprised, because until I received the program for this year's film festival, I never had either. But it pretty perfectly sums up what makes the ATL fest such a unique experience.

Soon after I had settled into my seat Friday afternoon for "Crossing in St. Augustine," a fairly old black gentleman with a rather large head came and sat right in front of me. I was thinking of asking him to consider one of the many empty seats all around me when I realized that the man seated right in front of me and already intently munching on popcorn was civil rights pioneer Andrew Young, so I instead simply said hello and decided that, among many other things, the man has certainly earned the right to sit wherever he damn well pleases.

We were, after all, here to watch a movie in which he's one of the main stars, and which was produced by his foundation. But the real strength of this flick about what went down in "America's Oldest City" in 1964 is that it takes the stories of players of lesser renown but even more import and puts them front and center.

The antiquated setting, complete with a slave market in the center of town (yes, really, but very few have the nerve to call it that) highlights the absurdity of this puerile chapter in American history, and the two veins that run through the stories of people who were there at the time are pride and humor - pride at what they accomplished, but a welcome dose of absurdist humor that it was indeed their "friends and neighbors" who turned on them so violently when things all boiled over.

Among the unrecognized players in this sordid saga you meet in this engaging documentary is Robert Hayling, a dentist who took it upon himself to organize the black teenagers of St. Augustine to march through the streets, sit at lunch counters and various other things most of us take for granted. Hearing the amazement in his voice as he told how people who had just recently sat in his dentist's chair were now attacking him and his young charges in the streets is a singular experience. Also still alive and in the movie are two girls (now women, of course) who were among the "St. Augustine Four," four teenagers who were locked up after trying to order a hamburger at the local Woolworth's, and spent many months in prison after they refused to rat on Hayling for "contributing to the delinquency of minors" (we never hear from the two boys, who it's rather ominously hinted just sort of disappeared after they went to prison.)

But the incident which gives the movie its title involves Mr. Young himself, and a late-night march which he had been sent to St. Augustine to stop. I don't want to spoil too much on the off chance you get to see this someday, but it was the great Hosea Williams who, after Young arrived, egged on the young crowd and told them Young was there to lead them.

Suitably shamed, Young indeed leads the march through town, and there is amazing but extremely hard to watch - especially with the man himself seated right in front of me and still intently munching popcorn - footage of Young getting savagely beaten, and one young man lying atop of him like a human tarp to absorb the blows. Simply devastating to watch.

The signature shot of "Crossing in St. Augustine," however, is the one that most clearly highlights the absurdity of it all, and though I had no knowledge of this, apparently played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Again, I won't spoil it all for you, but seeing the black and white photo of a white hotel owner actually pouring acid on the white and black people who had sneaked in to integrate his pool is something I will never forget and, according to the filmmakers (and I'm prone to believe them), it was the final act that shamed the Southern senators who were filibustering the Civil Rights Act to drop their action and let it pass.

All in all, a very entertaining portrait of a chapter of American history I had been woefully ignorant of, and afterward, Mr. Young rose to speak and brought up to the stage with him two of the men, one white and one black, who had integrated the pool that day. With men that old you don't really have a proper Q&A session, because their answers tend to go on for at least five minutes, but people were more than happy to just let them talk.

As I've done more than I had planned to about this movie, but I really just couldn't help it. I had planned to discuss the documentary that followed it on Saturday night, "Alley Pat: The Music Is Recorded," but that will have to wait until tomorrow, because I'm on vacation, dammit, and I've spent long enough on this for now. I'll simply close by saying that it's this enthusiastic embrace of history as a living being that makes the Atlanta Film Festival a truly unique experience. Peace out.

P.S.: If you're anywhere near Atlanta, please come on and get in on all the fun at the Landmark Midtown Cinema. The festival continues through next Friday, and you can learn more and buy tickets here.


The Newsman said...

We got a great deal of media coverage this weekend from some heavy hitters, but I wanted to say I enjoyed reading your take on the documentary more than anything else I've seen. You got everything just right.

In case you are interested in passing it on to your readers, the DVD is available online at

CB Hackworth (for Andrew Young)

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks so much, CB ... I really thoroughly enjoyed this documentary, and I'll certainly pass along the info when I write up "Alley Pat" tomorrow