`Song' gives unsung heroes their due

February 26, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For every Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, for every martyr to the civil rights cause, there were thousands of other heroes who took similar risks, exhibited similar bravery and should be similarly celebrated.

"Freedom Song," a tale of the civil rights movement set in the fictional town of Quinlan, Miss., in 1961, drives that point home with an emotional punch I suspect few will be able to resist. From the opening scenes, when a black father is forced to beat his own son by some white locals out for a few laughs, to the counter sit-ins and marches that eventually usher Quinlan into a time when equality just might be possible, it's a film that reminds us how truly depraved society once was.

It also suggests that the greatest tragedy of the civil rights movement was that it forced everyday people to put their lives on the line to exercise such basic rights as voting and using public libraries. One of the film's most nerve-wracking scenes is when a group of older blacks simply walk into the court house and try to register to vote; they're eventually thwarted when, as part of a civics test, they're unable to answer how many bubbles there are in a bar of soap.

The movie's central figure and narrator is a Owen Walker (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a teen-ager who has grown up with a chip on his shoulder -- a chip that's been there ever since his father gave him that beating. Understandably, when he starts hearing about freedom fighters and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he figures this may finally be his chance for revenge.

But Owen discovers that revenge is not on their minds, and at first he wants no part of these non-violent protests. He's won over, however, thanks to a pair of charismatic organizers, one from Chicago (Vondie Curtis Hall), one from right there in Quinlan (Glynn Turman as T-Bone Lanier). Along with dozens of his friends and neighbors, he's ready to be spat upon, beaten and even go to prison to get the rights that should have been there all along.

Owen's dad, Will (Danny Glover), is another matter. Years ago, he'd come back from World War II full of talk about equality and civil rights. But he quickly became a local pariah. Whites refused to buy gasoline from his station and intimidated blacks into following suit; before long, both his business and his home were gone. Since then, he's slowly begun to rebuild a life for himself and his family, and the last thing he needs is for outside agitators to stir things up.

Can he make Owen see his side? Or Will Owen prevail, and help his father rediscover the pride he lost while administering that beating?

"Freedom Song," which Glover executive-produced, was written with great sensitivity by Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") and Stanley Weiser. It also benefits from a uniformly strong cast, with special mention going to Hall, whose constricted speech and body language subtly reflect the seeming contradictions of non-violent resistance.

Shannon, who's already received rave notices for his performance as Reuben Carter's prison pen-pal in "The Hurricane," deserves much the same for his utterly believable performance here. His Owen Walker is no superteen, no latter-day Ghandi or disciple of King. He's just a kid who knows that something is wrong and thinks he knows what to do about it.

`Freedom Song'

Where: TNT

When: 7 p.m.-9: 30 p.m. tomorrow, repeats 9: 30 p.m.-midnight and midnight-2: 30 a.m.

In brief: Freedom's unsung heroes

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