College screens “Boycott” in honor of MLK

Last Thursday, as part of the college’s week of activities to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Cultural Center hosted a screening of the 2001 American television movie “Boycott” in the LPAC cinema. Students, faculty, and members of the Swarthmore community filled the cinema to view the film and reflect on Dr. King’s life and legacy. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Clark Johnson, who directed and played a small role in the film.
The film is based on the Stewart Burns book, “Daybreak of Freedom,” which tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The film begins with the arrest of Rosa Parks, portrayed by Iris Little Thomas, who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man on December 5, 1955. In protest, the Montgomery Improvement Association organized a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system with the assistance of Dr. King, played by Jeffery Wright, and his close friend and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, portrayed by Terrence Howard. The boycott lasted 381 days, during which Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, faced a number of threats. Tiauna Lewis ’19, who is also taking History v. Hollywood with Professor Allison Dorsey, enjoyed the film’s representation of Mrs. King.
“My favorite part of the film was being able to see Coretta Scott King in a more prominent role than she plays in a lot of King-focused narratives….She was a part of the journey but oftentimes is only inserted in the narrative as the widow she eventually becomes. Johnson, however, depicted her as being right there in the movement like she always was,” said Lewis.
In the film, Mrs. King is portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, who would go on to play Mrs. King again in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” which the college screened during its MLK celebration last year. “Boycott” ends with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that declared public bus segregation in Montgomery illegal, but, of course, marks only the “daybreak” of the Civil Rights Movement.
The film was awarded the Peabody Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series, or Dramatic Special, and has been particularly praised for its nuanced retelling of the boycott that illuminates narratives of Dr. King’s personal conflicts. The film also evoked a contemporary documentary through specific camera techniques, decidedly drawing history into the present.
“Clark Johnson has worked on both sides of the camera of some of the most important projects of the past twenty years—projects that have in common their ability to wed aesthetic innovation with incisive social critique,” President Valerie Smith said in her introduction of Johnson after the film finished. She went on to discuss the originality and brilliance of the film.
“This is a film that I love because it brings together aesthetic experiment with intellectual rigor. It brings musical and visual complexity together with historical nuance. And it does this, I think, in order to not only deepen our understanding of pivotal moments in U.S. history but also more broadly … [give] us a more complex view of what it means to be committed to social activism.”
“After seeing the film I was forced to think more about what it was like for Dr. King to be a man who was deeply invested in family and had to face threats against his family constantly… I had to think about what that would do to his heart and spirit over time and it made me respect him and the team of people around him a lot more I think,” Lewis said.
After President Smith’s introduction, Johnson rose to the podium to answer questions and discuss the film with the audience.
“I’m still proud of this film,” said Johnson. He described the final scene of the film, which was unscripted. Wright walked out into the streets of Atlanta dressed as Dr. King in between takes, and this inspired Johnson. In the final shot, children in contemporary dress look up at Dr. King in reverence, and two police officers drive by in their patrol car.
“I thought, ‘What would Martin think of us today?’ Which leads me to the next hundred days … We have social work that needs to be done,” said Johnson.
Screened the night before the inauguration, Johnson’s film prompted students to ask questions about both his artistic decisions as well as the project’s social and historical elements. This response was partially due to the purposeful aesthetic and artistic decisions Johnson made sixteen years ago in telling Dr. King’s story, but also due to our current historical moment. It comes as no surprise, then, that Johnson also spoke the following day at the collection held in honor of Dr. King by the college.
“I say that now, starting tomorrow, for the next hundred days, we should see that the revolution continues and that it’s expanded … History repeats itself. We’re absolutely doomed if we don’t listen,” Johnson said after the screening, commenting on his film’s connection to today.
Screening films like “Boycott” or last year’s “Selma” play a distinct role in the college’s commemoration of Dr. King. Lewis pointed out that they engage students in MLK’s legacy in a way that other events might not.
“I think film screenings are super important for any of the college’s major events or event series,” she said. “Especially with MLK commemoration week. We’re trying to have conversations about history, activism, social theory … [With] film screenings we can watch a movie and then have a conversation.”

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