Because today is Freedom Day.
One of Kartemquin Films founders (a Chicago-based production studio of documentary films that’s found itself in the Oscar conversation once again with the feature Minding the Gap and this short) was at the school boycott coined “Freedom Day” in 1963 filming the march as a twenty one year old, three years before joining Jerry Temaner and Stan Karter to build the company. It’s only right then that Gordon Quinn would witness the continuation of those injustices fought against by Black citizens still creating a chokehold on minority education today with the desire to do something about it. So he dug out those 16mm reels and hunted down some of the major players of the time to recount what it was like to spark change and why the fight rages on.
The result is ’63 Boycott, a straightforward piece with archival footage and contemporary interviews mixed together to document the racist actions of a mayor (Richard M. Daley) and school superintendent (Benjamin Willis) in direct violation of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Rather than integrate schools for a population that would actually prove majority Black at the time (a statistic only discovered after these protests’ success), the latter would construct “Willis Wagon” trailers on already over-crowded campuses to keep the White schools more comfortable with less students and therefore more money per head. In come Rosie Simpson and Don Rose with help from youngsters Sandra Murray and Ralph Davis (among others) to tie their struggles to those in the south by hitting the establishment where it hurts: the pocketbook.
Quinn paints the picture with first-hand evidence that connects what over 250,000 students did in the 60s with Chicago’s youth of today. He shows the ways in which government was complicit and how charter schools have arrived to reinforce a cycle of affluent parents removing their children from public institutions left to fend for themselves. It’s oral history format gives context to the powerful imagery of children standing up for their rights while the new footage shows how cognizant twenty-first century teens are to the legacy that lies behind them. More time capsule lesson than crackerjack feat of cinematic ingenuity, ’63 Boycott is no less important as far as revealing how these systemic issues have yet to change. Its message easily transcends its inherent archetypal style and construction.