You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South (Milestone, NR)

dvd moveThe film is totally sincere but also a bit boring, as if the excitement of leading societal change had to be dulled down lest revolution start breaking out all over.

Lucy Massie Phenix is best known for her work as editor on politically charged documentaries such as The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Word Is Out, Regret to Inform, and Winter Soldier. But she was also a director, and one of her films (co-directed with Veronica Selver), 1985’s You Got to Move, has recently become available on DVD. It’s a straightforward documentary more important for its subject matter than for its artistry, and the inclusion of a well-chosen set of extras on the DVD make it an excellent purchase for libraries and schools.

You Got to Move focuses on several individuals who attended the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center), founded in 1932 in New Market, Tenn., to train community leaders. Originally, the school’s focus was on the labor organizing, but it also played a major role in the Civil Rights movement (“alumni” include Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Stokely Carmichael) and later became involved in environmentalism and other issues. In the 1950s, the Highlander School was also notable as one of the few places where white and African-American adults could socialize together, a fact used by local officials—along with charges that the school was promoting Communism—to induce the state of Tennessee to shut it down in 1961. (It reopened in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly thereafter.)

Although the Highlander School is the common thread tying together the stories of You’ve Got to Move, the real subject of the film is the process by which ordinary people become empowered to lead the fight for social justice. As such, it relies heavily on interviews with a few key individuals, including Bernice Robinson (a literacy instructor who taught many African-Americans to read and write so they could qualify to vote), Bernice Johnson Reagan (a singer who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock), Bill Saunders (a labor organizer who led a major hospital workers’ strike in 1969), Rebecca Simpson (a woman who challenged environmental damage by mining companies in Harlan County, Ky.), and Gail Story and MaryLee Rogers (who helped end hazardous waste dumping in Bumpass Cove, Tenn.). The interviews are spaced out by archival footage and lots of music—the soundtrack alone is a strong selling point for the film.

Unfortunately, You Got to Move never really catches fire. You see people talking about incredibly important historical changes, but even fairly recent events seem abstract and distant. The film is totally sincere but also a bit boring, as if the excitement of leading societal change had to be dulled down lest revolution start breaking out all over. You Got to Move also has a tendency to lurch between subjects, and the two halves of the film—one discussing the Highlander School’s role in the Civil Rights movement, the other its role in more recent environmental actions—are not at all balanced. The Civil Rights sections are much richer and more interesting, perhaps thanks to the quantity of archival materials available, as well as the perspective gained on the events by the passage of time.

You Got to Move comes with a rich package of extras which complement the film. An excerpt of a Bill Moyer’s Journal episode (12 min.) provides useful background about the Highlander School, and in another extra (11 min.), Phenix explains why she felt compelled to make this film (one proximate cause was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “states’ rights” remarks, which many took as an endorsement of Southern institutionalized racism) and her approach to the material. Other extras include an interview with E.D. Nixon (9 min.), a Pullman Porter who played a key role in the Montgomery bus strike; a “where are they now” segment about the interview subjects (6 min.); coverage of the Highlander School’s 75th Anniversary Celebration (9 min.); a follow-up interview with Bill Saunders (28 min.); and two trailers for the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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