See the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of its foot soldiers.
Dir. Gail Dolgin & Robin Fryday, 2012, 26 min, Viewed via the POV website
We’re in love with the “great man theory” of history, because it allows the complicated nature of human events to be boiled down to biopics. We can point to big names and say “this person changed things.” That’s not really accurate, though. History is made by everyone – we just only bother to learn a few names.
One name that won’t make it into any textbooks is James Armstrong. He was on the front lines of the African American civil rights movement, participating in numerous activities to end segregation during the 1950’s and 60’s. He bore the American flag during the march from Selma to Montgomery. From his little barber shop in Birmingham, he ran education programs as a counter to unfair tests set up to prevent black people from voting. He sued to get his sons into a previously all-white school. The man’s a hero. He’s one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of heroes who acted up during this time period. They were all great men; the descriptor doesn’t belong solely to those whose names we’re taught in school.
The Barber of Birmingham visits Armstrong at his barber shop during the 2008 election. He and numerous others see Obama’s victory as the culmination of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. It is of course debatable as to whether or not this is accurate, but that doesn’t really matter. To this particular group of people, this is the ultimate victory they’ve been fighting towards for decades. Therefore, within the framework of the film, it is a triumph.
The doc doesn’t turn Armstrong into some supreme superhero. In fact, it takes pains to show us that he’s an incredibly ordinary person. The point is that ordinary people can be capable of world-changing stuff. In a climate of general political apathy, it’s a reminder that we could stand to hear. The Barber of Birmingham is a nice little look at that tired but nonetheless true canard about the power of one person to make a difference.