‘Rising Up’ gives fresh view on activism
Student film documents foot soldiers in Virginia’s Civil Rights Movement
By Mary Carlson
Selma, Birmingham and the Freedom Rides … Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. Each symbolizes the activist spirit that fueled the modern Civil Rights Movement in America.
Yet these people and places don’t tell the whole story of African-Americans’ struggle against racial segregation and discrimination. In fact, there is no single, unified tale of resistance and change. Rather, there are many stories of personal courage and activism, some of which have been forgotten. Now, thanks to a remarkable group of U.Va. students-turned documentary filmmakers, most of whom are graduating this weekend, five of these stories — all based in Virginia — are getting the attention they deserve.
“Rising Up,” a one-hour film, offers a groundbreaking view of the lives and events that shaped the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia. The project began in January as a collaborative effort between Professor Will Thomas’ class, “Documenting the Civil Rights Era,” and Professor Bill Reifenberger’s Advanced Media Studies course. Funded with a $2,000 award from the U.Va. Alumni Association’s Ernest C. Mead Endowment, the project was never meant to be a lavish Hollywood production. What mattered, Thomas said, was having “the opportunity to work very closely with students on a large-scale project in which they are all involved.”
The students formed what Reifenberger calls “a dream team.” Some came to the project with archival research experience while others had worked with digital video cameras and editing software. Despite this wealth of talent, the group’s goal was unnervingly ambitious: to create a broadcast-quality documentary on the history of Virginia’s Civil Rights Movement — in just 16 weeks.
Teamwork was essential. The film would consist of five segments, each focusing on a particular event or theme from the history of civil rights activism in Virginia. Each segment had its own mini-production team responsible for creating the storyline and visuals. From tracking down prospective interviewees to securing copyrights for archival materials, scriptwriting, shooting interviews and other footage, editing, producing graphics and creating a musical score, the teams handled it all.
Jen O’Connor, a fourth-year media studies and English major, served as production manager, a demanding role that kept her finger on the pulse of the entire project. “It was difficult at first because we weren’t sure what needed to be done,” she said. “But it was a great experience [that] gave me a chance to test-drive what I’ve been thinking that I want to do in my career.”
Jamie Williams, a fourth-year anthropology major who served as a director and editor, concurred: “I really liked the big group feel and working with ideas. I hope filmmaking is in the future for me.”
“Rising Up” is unique among documentary films about the Civil Rights Movement. Where many films focus on people and events centered in the Deep South, “Rising Up” offers a fresh perspective of activism, looking at the lasting contributions of individual Virginians, none of whom ever gained the celebrity of King, Parks and others.
“Our main theme was to ask what makes people activists, what led them to do what they did,” explained third-year history and politics major Anthony Lamesa. In exploring that theme, Lamesa and other researchers sifted through archival materials, made numerous phone calls and followed up leads to piece together the five storylines.
The effort paid off. In researching the story of the 1960 sit-in at Thalhimers Department Store in downtown Richmond, Lamesa and his team felt fortunate to find Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Virginia Union University students who staged the sit-in. Her interview was critical to the story’s emphasis on individuals. But with only still images to supplement this footage, the segment seemed incomplete.
As editor Daniel McCool, a fourth-year Media Studies major, explained, “We didn’t have a lot of [archival] footage to drive our segment. I was searching online and thought I might find some B-roll [filler] footage.”
Instead, McCool stumbled upon prime footage showing a group of black students, with Rice among them, as they sought to integrate Thalhimers’s “whites-only” restaurant. Inspired by student sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., Rice and 33 others — soon known as the “Richmond 34” — entered the restaurant and took seats at the counter. They were promptly arrested for trespassing. The incident marked the first mass
arrests of the Civil Rights movement and served as a milestone in Virginia’s history of race relations.
In the project’s final days, the students added an original musical score, written by Su Yin Koh and graphics by Aaron Biscombe, both fourth-years. Another crucial element was the voice-over narration, supplied by fourth-year Kim Osagie, a soloist for the Black Voices Gospel Choir. Although she wasn’t registered for either class, Osagie felt an immediate sense of belonging with her peers. “I’m really glad they sought me out to be a part of it,” she said. “I felt as if I had been there all along.”
After 16 weeks of intense collaboration, the final cut was complete. The students had met their deadline and achieved something extraordinary. Their film opened to a packed house on May 10 in U.Va.’s Clark Hall and is tentatively scheduled for broadcast in February 2006 by a Richmond PBS affiliate.
At long last, these civil rights soldiers’ stories are getting their due.