Several years ago, I recommended the documentary Shanghai Ghetto to a good friend of mine. Shanghai Ghetto was about Jews who escaped the holocaust, and found refuge in China. My friend, who happens to be Jewish, said to me, "The last thing I want to see is another movie about the holocaust," which at the time struck me as being a bit cold-blooded and cynical. And then I found myself watching the Civil Rights documentary Dare Not Walk Alone, and the one thing running through my head was, "The last thing I want to see is another movie about Civil Rights and racism in America."
In all fairness to Dare Not Walk Alone, I just recently re-watched Eyes on the Prize, the landmark, unequalled 14-part documentary on the Civil Rights movement. It doesn't get much better than Eyes on the Prize, and watching Dare Not Walk Alone so soon afterwards was something of a mistake. But even still, I'm not all that sure that I would have been overwhelmed by Dare Not Walk Alone even if the circumstances surrounding my watching it were any different.
Jeremy Dean's documentary focuses on St. Augustine, Florida, where in 1964, shortly before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, attempts to desegregate garnered national attention. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the scene, St. Augustine became an integral setting in the push for racial equality in America, as did the Monson Motor Lodge, a segregated motel where much of the drama unfolded. Much of country was shocked when James Brock, owner of the Monson, poured acid into the motel's swimming pool after several African-Americans jumped in. Brock's enraged actions, as well as the repeated acts of violence carried out by white mobs against blacks on segregated beaches of St. Augustine became part of national dialog, and many argue helped to solidify Johnson's resolves to enact the Civil Rights Act.
Through a wealth of archival footage intercut with contemporary interviews, Dean recounts the history of St. Augustine, and then turns around and examines the city as it is forty years after the fact. While racial equality may have been achieved in the form of desegregation, there is still a brutal economic disparity that keeps the Florida city divided, primarily along racial lines. Most of the black residents of St. Augustine live in abject poverty that resembles third world conditions, and the disproportionate number of blacks in jail versus whites also speaks to lingering inequities. And while all of this is both infuriating and fascinating--although fascinating seems an inappropriate term--none of it should come as a surprise to anyone with a semblance of awareness.
Dare Not Walk Alone is a decent film, that serves its purpose in both reminding the audience of recent history, and examining the current condition of some blacks in this country. But the film suffers from an inconsistent structure, and has been edited in a way that is at times clunky and awkward. The people who are interviewed are little more than faces talking to the camera, when there should be more of a sense of who they are as human beings. Without a greater sense of who is being interviewed, the films has a disembodied lack of humanity, which in turn results in a lack of any real emotional punch. For someone with no historical knowledge of the Civil Rights movement whatsoever, this documentary might be emotionally moving. But for anyone well versed in what happened then, and what is going on now, Dare Not Walk Alone will most likely leave you feeling like you've just watched one movie too many about Civil Rights and racism in America.