Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lucy Massie Phenix’s YOU GOT TO MOVE: underseen classic gets world DVD premiere

It’s 26 years old already, yet YOU GOT TO MOVE: Stories of Change in the South hardly seems to have dated at all. This is especially true -- unfortunately -- in the section of the film that details the travails undergone by a Tennessee mountain community that tries to stop toxic dumping into a nearby landfill. Success in this location unfortunately does not mean that toxic dumping has stopped elsewhere. As I type out this review, I am certain it is going on throughout the rest of America and internationally, wherever enough corporate power and money are able to effectively collude against individuals and communities.

Much of this documentary by Lucy Massie Phenix (shown at right, with Rhetta Barron, on her left, giving her a little hug) involves the pre-, during and post-Civil Rights era and the terrific and (given the time in which all this happened) quite amazing work engendered by the Highland Research and Education Center, a organization of which TrustMovies had never heard until now. This belated DVD premiere, in fact (thanks to Milestone Film & Video), commemorates the 80th anniversary of the center and 50 years since the birth of the Albany Movement.

Ms Phenix gives us background on the Highlander Center, at which both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King attended classes, and one could without exaggeration say that the birth of the Civil Rights movement in our country began at Highlander. The filmmaker captures the Center via some of the people who have known it best and longest, including some who give simply terrific interviews: smart, thoughtful, real and impassioned. One of these, a woman named Bernice Johnson Reagon (shown above), tells us what seems to me to be key in why Highlander is so important and constant: "If you go back to the 1930s, it was about working for the unions; in the late 1950s and 60s, it was a training school for the Civil Rights movement; after that, it was about strip mining, nuclear power, toxic waste dumping or whatever oppressed people in the south. This makes Highlander special for me: its ability to move through time." Ms Reagon speaks with such sincerity, warmth, strength & intelligence that she's a pleasure to see & hear.

Likewise Bill Saunders (above, left), a fellow who tells us of his Korean War experience (the year the U.S. military was desegregated) and how, when he and his buddies came back to the south and suddenly he was segregated all over again, nobody would stand up for him. Mr. Saunders, as do all the interviewees, seems like a friend who's sitting in your living room, reminiscing with intelligence and feeling. Later, he explains how he observed and began to understand how whites, too -- economically, though not racially, held back -- were living in a society based on "class."

Those whites get the chance to tell their story in the next section, devoted to the strip mining and dumping of toxic waste in Tennessee. All this seems less like history (though it took place in the 1960s and 70s) than current events, as sickness and death overtake a community with little insight into how to stop the destruction -- until Highlander takes on the teaching process.

Throughout the film, music and song play a large part. While I am not overly taken with this sort of thing, the sterling archival shots that accompany all this are striking and pertinent. Listening to these people talk and remember -- filmed 26 years ago and covering more than half a century -- you realize with something of a jolt how much indeed has changed over time, and how much remains to be done.

You Got to Move -- the title comes from one of the many songs we hear -- arrives today, October 18, 0n DVD from Milestone Film & Video -- for sale and/or rental. It's a old-fashioned documentary (none of this new hybrid stuff, lovely as that sometimes can be) that demands a place on the shelf of the most important films in this field. And it should easily ensure the Highlander Research and Education Center its place in American history.

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