With both Black History Month and the Academy Awards behind us, Thursday’s Alabama Theatre premiere of The Barber of Birmingham, a film by Robin Fryday and the late Gail Dolgin about civil rights activist James Armstrong, might seem a trifle anti-climactic. Instead, the news of the day suggests that there’s no time like the present for seeing a movie about a man dedicated to bringing about political change nonviolently.
He was called a foot soldier, but Armstrong, a quiet, dapper gentleman who was in fact a licensed barber, did not carry himself in a warlike way. However, when one heard his extraordinary story of courage in the struggle to break the color barrier, it became evident how depthless was his steely resolve. He risked his life to have his children attend all-white Graymont Elementary School in 1957. He was beaten bloody carrying an American flag at the Selma march in 1965. From the streets of Birmingham to the Pettus Bridge, Armstrong was always ready to give all for the cause of freedom.
The civil rights icon died in 2009 at age 86, but before he died, filmmakers Dolgin and Fryday captured his unique perspective on the election of a black citizen to the Presidency of the United States. But how did these California girls cross the path of this remarkable Birmingham man in the first place?
ROBIN FRYDAY: Well, I was very fortunate. I’m a photographer myself, this is my first film, and as we were heading into the ’08 election, I was out here in California, thinking about the people who made this election possible, the foot soldiers who risked their lives for the right to vote, knowing that there were still many of those foot soldiers still alive and wondering what this moment must be like for them. So I decided to take a trip to Alabama, because I wanted to do some research and that’s what I did. I took a two-week trip and came to Birmingham and just started talking with people. One person introduced me to another, I went to the Civil Rights Institute and I was just amazed at how open and welcoming people were, willing to share their stories. I started meeting foot soldiers and somebody said to me, “Have you met The Barber?”
I was taken on a trip to Mr. Armstrong’s barber shop, and when I got there, I saw Mr. Armstrong sitting on his chair, wearing his bow tie, with his suspenders and his hat, waving at me to come in. I wound up spending several hours listening to his stories and I just knew, looking around the barber shop and seeing the memorabilia on the wall, hearing his stories of his personal struggle to get his children into an integrated school, that he would be the main character in the film. I knew his story needed to be recorded and it needed to be recorded right then.
I came back to the Bay Area and then was introduced to Gail Dolgin, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who became the co-director of this film. I talked to her about this idea and Mr. Armstrong and showed her some photographs that I had. By this time, it was about two weeks before the election. We said, you know what? This is the time. We need to go capture this moment, and that’s what we did. We ended up spending the last year of Mr. Armstrong’s life filming him, because he passed away the following November  and then in October the next year, Gail, who had been having a very lengthy fight against breast cancer, passed away.
But Mr. Armstrong represented to us all of the foot soldiers. It was his story, but it was about all of them.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Was James Armstrong an easy man to get to know?
RF: For us, he was, and I spent quite a bit of time before we even started filming getting to know him. I fell in love with him. He was always open to having us there at any time, to talk, to film, to follow him around. We ended up going to his home and spent quite a bit of time with him outside the barber shop. We also went with him on Sundays when he would volunteer at the Civil Rights Institute.
BW: It might have been easier to secure financing to do a documentary about a higher profile figure in the civil rights struggle, like Dr. King or Ralph Abernathy or Fred Shuttlesworth. What was it about the foot soldiers’ role that piqued your interest? RF: I think it was that these were the unsung heroes. There’s been a lot of recognition for Dr. King and a lot of the others, and I felt that the story had not been told about how the foot soldiers risked their lives and their livelihoods in support of the movement day after day, and had their children marching. I thought their stories were important to tell and to record, and they’re getting up there in years. If it weren’t for the people behind the leaders, the movement would not have continued the way it did and progress would not have been made, as it was.
BW: As a filmmaker, how were you able to translate all this into a 26-minute film?
RF: We had to decide, first of all, whether we were going to make this a full-length film or a short. We were in the process of raising money for a fulllength film when Gail’s health declined. There was actually an amazing meeting just days before Gail passed away when one of our executive producers with Chicken and Egg Pictures, Judith Helfand, came in and we had a meeting with Gail. We decided to finish it up as a short and submit it to Sundance [Film Festival], and a big part of it was, we already had a sample that was 18 minutes long. We decided to keep as much of that intact as we could, because it was the last piece Gail worked on.
BW: So how did you make the cut at Sundance, where there are so many documentaries in competition?
RF: I don’t know if I could answer that; I wasn’t the one accepting the films, but we were certainly extremely excited to have our film accepted into such a prestigious festival on the first time we tried.
The film was not even finished at this point. It was accepted shortly after Gail passed away and we were only about six weeks out from the festival. We had a team of people that had all joined together, many people who worked with Gail in the past and filmmakers in the building where she worked. A whole community of people came together to see this film finished, and this was during the Christmas holidays. We had people working day and night, and we got it finished one day after the deadline, but we were in time for the festival.
BW: So you had in essence a community of film foot soldiers pitching in for the cause.
RF: In many ways, it paralleled the story. Gail and Mr. Armstrong, they both devoted their lives to fighting for justice in different ways; Gail through her storytelling and filmmaking and Mr. Armstrong through his work and involvement in the movement. But also Gail seeing this through during a very hard time in her life when she was struggling with breast cancer---it was really a story of perseverance by both Gail and Mr. Armstrong, in different ways.
BW: How did audiences respond at the festival?
RF: It was very well received. We had five screenings at Sundance and five full houses. We had the honor of having Robert Redford at our premiere screening and then we were asked to do an additional screening at the local high school in Park City. That was an auditorium full of students, from history classes, filmmaking classes, all different subjects. We had the screening of the film, and Shirley [Gavin Floyd, business manager of the Civil Rights Activist Committee] and I did a discussion afterwards, a question and answer session with them. That was great for us to see, because one of the big goals Gail and I had for this film was to see it used for educational purposes, so that, as Mr. Armstrong said, the young people do not take for granted these rights. Unless the story’s kept alive, people tend to forget. The younger generations don’t know what it took, and I think by telling the story, through the lens of this man, we got to see a reaction that, I think, from high school students is different than just getting straight facts from a history book. You really come to know this man and you feel his character and develop a relationship with him.
BW: Well, the toughest audience of all might be Mr. Armstrong’s family. How did they react to it?
RF: I was in the audience at Sundance with Shirley on one side of me and Mr. Armstrong’s family on the other. Of course, I was nervous about how it would be received by everyone, but even more so by Mr. Armstrong’s family. I wanted more than anything for them to feel that he was honored in a way that they would want him to be honored. When I saw through the whole movie the family and Shirley crying, they were very moved and very touched-they loved it. And that was wonderful for me. They were very pleased with the way it was told, and it couldn’t have been better.
BW: The focus of your film is on history, but current events in places as disparate as Egypt and Wisconsin remind us that nonviolent resistance is still pertinent. What do you think The Barber of Birmingham tells us about the politics of the present day?
RW: I think there’s a lot to be learned from the teachings of nonviolence, and also lessons from the patience these people had. It took time. It didn’t happen overnight. I think we expect things to happen instantly, and this reminds us that things can happen, but it takes time as well.
The red-carpet premiere of The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement is free to see, Thursday night at 7 at the Alabama Theatre. If you miss that showing, see it free Saturday morning at 11 in Selma’s Performing Arts Center, as part of the Fifth Annual Jubilee Film Festival.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.