Film Reviews

Counter Histories: Rock Hill – Documentary Review

The Friendship Nine are one of the lesser known groups to have made a stand during the fight for equal rights in the United States during the 1960s, with a story that shows the varying methods of protests employed to raise awareness and push for equality. Now their story is brought to the screen by director Frederick Taylor (credited here as Fr3deR1ck), alongside interviews with the members of this pioneering group.

The film tells the story of nine young Black men who, on the morning of January 31st 1961, entered McCrory’s diner in Rock Hill, North Carolina, and sat at the counter. Whilst this might not seem to be a particularly bold move at first, the film soon makes it clear that this action was taken at a time where Black people were not allowed to sit at restaurant counters, where they had to attend Black schools, drink from separate water fountains, and when Black people were being lynched by bigots and racists.

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What made the Friendship Nine different was that they went into this knowing that they were going to get trouble, and that they would be arrested. They chose to put themselves at risk, making the decision that none of them would fight back, be rude, or attempt to resist in any way. Their aim was to be arrested but to refuse bail, something that was costing the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) a lot of money. Their strategy of ‘Jail, No Bail’ saw the nine of them face a month in jail, forced to perform hard labour.

Over the course of Counter Histories: Rock Hill we get to know some of the members of the Friendship Nine, with several of them speaking openly and candidly not just about that day in 1961, but the entire fight for equality for Black people in the US. These interviews are interspersed with recreations of the sit in, as well as television and radio footage from the time.

Whilst the content of the film is incredibly interesting, and the story of the Friendship Nine is one that needs more recognition and acknowledgement, some of the way it’s presented makes it less impactful than it could be. The film has no narration, and it’s down to the members of the Friendship Nine to talk us through what happened in their own words, alongside a handful of other people involved, and related media. Whilst this is a good approach, as it makes the topic feel a lot more personal, like the audience is learning it from those there rather than just being lectured about the incident, the way it’s assembled here left me feeling less informed than I wanted to be.

The film tends to jump around a lot, with many of the people talking on camera going on to talk about things outside of the event itself. Now, this is always informative, and they cover things such as how some of them came to be involved in the protest, or what they would go on to do after it, and the continued racism they had to face; however, they’re presented in a way where we’re jumping back and forth to the actual event. The lack of clear chronology means that you’re sometimes feeling like you’re going off topic a bit, and having to come back round to the main point. It feels less like a planned out documentary, and more a conversation with the people involved, complete with asides and tangents.

This feeling of disconnect is further fed with the continued use of reenactments of the event. Half a dozen scenes seem to have been shot, but the film goes back to them time and time again, with the film slowed down to enable the shots to last longer. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with these moments in themselves, after seeing the young actors enter the diner and sit at the counter for the tenth time it had very much lost its impact.

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The film isn’t bad though, and the footage included, both of the interviews with the Friendship Nine members and from old news reels, in incredibly informative and educational. The film taught me a lot, and elicited strong emotions in me more than once. It made me angry that such injustices were allowed to take place, but it also made me feel hope that things could be better thanks to the actions of activists like the Friendship Nine and others who fought for equality. The film also showed that so many of the arguments from those standing against progress haven’t changed in six decades, with so many of the speeches from segregationists being eerily similar to those being made today about marginalised groups.

Counter Histories: Rock Hill shows one of the lesser known moments from the US civil rights movement, of brave and defiant action taken by ordinary men who stood up and did something extraordinary. It showed that the fight for equality was fought on so many fronts, in so many ways, and whilst there’s still so much work still to be done, not just in the US but the entire world, positive change is possible.

Counter Histories: Rock Hill is out now on digital platforms.

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