Powerful New Civil Rights Documentary: “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

While the nation will celebrate the holiday on Monday, today is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King. He would have been 81 years old today had he lived. There seems no more fitting way to celebrate than to share this new documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, “Soundtrack to a Revolution.” The film is on the short list for upcoming Academy Awards. Here is a short (about 2 minutes) trailer for the film:

I had the chance to see this film last weekend at the Tribeca Film Institute (random name-drop: Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were there). The film follows the story of the civil rights movement by charting the music that was most powerfully identified with it. There are moving, contemporary versions of classic songs sung by top musicians in studio settings and there are engaging, acapella renditions of these songs sung by the people who lived through the movement. My personal favorite was Richie Havens singing a civil rights ballad over images of civil rights pioneers – black and white – who were killed in the fight for racial justice.

It’s an excellent film that would be suitable for using in the classroom for teaching about race, political struggle and resistance, the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. In a Q&A session with the filmmakers following the screening, they noted that educating young people about the civil rights movement was one of their intended purposes in creating the film. Sadly, they also noted that in pre-screening the film in high schools that a majority of students and their teachers (!) did not know most of the civil rights leaders featured in the film.

If you’re considering using the film in a college classroom, I have a couple of companion book recommendations. The first is a wonderfully creative way of looking at social movements through the art that inspired them, called The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle,by T.V. Reed. The second is a compelling analysis of the way television was used by the civil rights movement, and in particular, how prescient Dr. King was in his use of television, called Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights,by Sasha Torres. Both books are excellent, and suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and will further elaborate some of the themes addressed in the film.