On Wednesday, August 10, at 5 p.m. there will be a screening of the short film The Barber of Birmingham at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. The film is part of the ninth annual Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival taking place here on the Island, beginning today, August 9, and running through Saturday, August 13.
The running time for The Barber of Birmingham is just 26 minutes but is so powerful it should be required viewing. It was a 2011 selection at the Sundance Film Festival and a finalist for the HBO shorts competition.
Directed and produced by Gail Dolgin, the subject of the film is James Armstrong, an 86-year-old barber living in Birmingham, Ala. Mr. Armstrong’s shop is small and weathered but what catches the eye most prominently are the newspaper clippings and photos of Civil Rights leaders and movements that cover the walls. Dr. Martin Luther King even sat in Mr. Armstrong’s barber chair three times. But this isn’t a man who looks back at history with a passive eye. On the wall also hangs an American flag, the very one Mr. Armstrong carried on his many marches for equal rights, including Bloody Sunday, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery where so many marchers were beaten by the police as they tried to cross the Pettus Bridge.
The film is a celebration of Mr. Armstrong and others like him, the unsung foot soldiers, as they are called, in the Civil Rights Movement. Their names did not go down in history like Dr. King or Rosa Parks, but they were there every step of the way. The film also features Amelia Boynton, now 97, talking about her days as a foot soldier. There is even footage of Ms. Boynton as a younger woman trying to march across the Pettus Bridge and being knocked unconscious by the rifle butt of an Alabama police officer.
Mr. Armstrong describes how he was put in jail six times. His wife and children also spent time in jail, again for peacefully standing up for equal rights. During the reign of Gov. George Wallace, who continually fought against desegregation in schools, Mr. Armstrong’s four children were on the front lines; spit at, beaten, threatened, all for just trying to go to school.
Many of these images are familiar and, as always, horrific. However, there is an added poignancy in seeing men and women, now in their 80s and 90s, look back at those events not with anger but rather amazement over the changes that have taken place since then. Much of the film’s context is framed during the run up to Barack Obama’s election and inauguration.
As Mr. Armstrong says in the movie, “This is what I went to jail for and marched for.”
One might ask why, on vacation, would you want to view something that could potentially put a damper on cocktail hour? But the movie is anything but depressing. Rather it is invigorating. Mr. Armstrong is an amiable presence who neither celebrates his role in change nor complains about the hardships he endured. As a result, he and the film are inspirations.
To give Mr. Armstrong, who, sadly, died in 2009, the last word, “Dying ain’t the worse thing a man can do. Worse thing is to live for nothing. I’m going to live for a purpose.”
To see the entire list of more than 60 films appearing at the festival, visit mvaaff.com. Registration begins today, 2 to 5 p.m. at the Mansion House on Main street in Vineyard Haven.
— Bill Eville