Filmmaker Interview

What is The Barber of Birmingham about?

Robin Fryday, director: The Barber of Birmingham is a film about the civil rights movement. It's told through the lens of a foot soldier, Mr. James Armstrong, who had his barbershop in Birmingham since the early 1950s. And he's a man who dedicated his life to the fight for civil rights. He integrated his two sons into the all-white Graymont Elementary School. He carried the original flag on Bloody Sunday in the march from Selma to Montgomery. He fought for civil rights, and we followed him through the election of our first African-American president, Barack Obama. This is a man who, who fought for the right to vote and lives to see this amazing historic event.

What was the genesis of the project?

Fryday: Well this is my first film. My background's as a photographer, but I was at home in the Bay Area where I'm from and thinking, as we were getting closer to the election and there was even the possibility that we may be nominating our first African-American president, about those who brought us to this day and what must they be feeling to even be this close to possibly nominating the first African-American president. And I felt it was something that was so important that should be documented and more as a film than still photography which was my background. I decided to take a trip to Birmingham which was where so much of the civil rights movement began and to do some research. I went to the Civil Rights Institute. I went to the Civil Rights Activist Committee and I was introduced to many, many people who were active in the movement. I really decided to make a film focusing on the foot soldiers who were the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Most of us have heard of the leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but most of us don't know about the foot soldiers. So I wanted to give voice and name to those people. I started meeting many of the foot soldiers who were still alive and many are elderly, so I knew that it was important to record their stories.

Somebody said to me, "have you met the barber?" And I took a trip to Mr. Armstrong's barbershop. Immediately looked in the shop from the outside and Mr. Armstrong was sitting in his chair, which he spent a lot of time doing. He was 85 years old at that time and had had this barbershop since the early 1950s. I was on the outside, looking in and saw this man with his bow tie and suspenders and plaid pants and big smile, waving me to come in. I looked around the shop and saw every inch of space of his shop covered with memorabilia from the civil rights movement. I went in and just spent hours talking with him and listening to his stories. So I went back home and decided to tell the story through the lens of this man.

What is it about Mr. Armstrong that you find compelling?

Fryday:Well he was very charismatic, first of all. And he loved to tell his stories. He was very open and he knew the importance of telling his stories and educating the next generations. I saw what he had sacrificed in his life and the sacrifices that he made for his family and the sacrifices that his children made, all because he knew that there would be a better day and he believed in and a better future for this country. He was known as the gentle giant. He was a quiet man, but he was a man who stood up for what he believed in. He never missed a mass meeting. He never missed a march. He was always ready to put himself and his life out on the line.

What was your greatest satisfaction in making this film?

Fryday:. I think one of my favorite parts of making the film was to be able to sit face to face with Mr. Armstrong and hear firsthand the stories from the people who lived the history that we read about in books. And it was just such an honor for me to be able to talk with those who made history. I think one of the greatest rewards of the film came afterwards and not that long ago. Our vision for this film was to educate young people. And recently Shirley Gavin Floyd, who has been very instrumental in helping with the film since the beginning — she works at the Civil Rights Activist Committee in Birmingham — she arranged a screening of the film with 600 high school students from all over Birmingham, as well as bringing 20 of the original foot soldiers together. We had a panel discussion and screened the film and had the foot soldiers talk one by one of their experiences in the movement. We had tables set up for students to register to vote. These were all high school seniors who were, who were of voting age or soon would be. And to see the students afterwards, after seeing the film, run to the tables to fill out their voter registration forms and say that before seeing the film and before hearing the stories of the foot soldiers and those who sacrificed so that they could vote, they didn't know that and they probably would not have voted. So to see the film have that kind of an effect and, and make a difference was very rewarding.

What surprised you most during the making of the film?

Fryday: One of the things that surprised me and Gail during the making of the film was when we started talking with the foot soldiers right before the election, back in the Bay Area there was so much excitement and anticipation. But it was a very different feeling in Birmingham and we weren't sure exactly why it was. We were surprised at how subdued the people were. We were with a group of the foot soldiers on the election eve. And we weren't sure exactly why there wasn't the same kind of celebration and excitement, but after talking with many of the people who've fought for the right to vote and were now this close to the election, we were hearing the same thing over and over — that this was really just one step in the process. This wasn't the end of racism. This was just another step. Whether Barack Obama was elected or not, they felt they were one step closer. But there was also a feeling that they did not want to get overly excited because they had been disappointed so many times and were afraid of that feeling of getting excited and then having to experience the disappointment. So we were a little surprised by that. But of course understood it.

How did you and Gail Dolgin come together and what was it like working with Gail?

Fryday:Well at the time when I met Gail and we started working on The Barber of Birmingham, she was in the late stages of breast cancer she had been battling for about ten years. And she immediately told me of her health condition. There were times though, in fact most of the time when I would forget that Gail was as sick because she had such determination and such life in her and lived it to the fullest and did not let anything stop her from living it. So I learned a lot from Gail, everything I know about filmmaking, but also a lot about life. And Gail chose all her films to bring awareness to social injustices. She chose her films carefully and was most well known for her film, The Daughter From Da Nang, which was a film about an Asian American woman who gets reunited with her Vietnamese mother after 22 years. Very, very beautiful and powerful film.

Well Gail and I came together, it's an interesting story. It was ironically through a hairdresser that we met. I had gone to Birmingham, decided to make this documentary but had no filmmaking experience. And so I went back home and I was looking for a filmmaker who had experience. Gail was working on a film in Alabama at the time and things were put on hold and so she was getting her hair done and she was telling her hairdresser about the film that she was working on in Alabama. The hairdresser happened to be the daughter of a friend of mine and knew I was looking for an experienced filmmaker and put us in touch. And it was another example of the power of the communication in the barbershop or the beauty shop and how information gets passed along, which was such an important part of the film and of Mr. Armstrong's barbershop. So Gail and I met and she loved the subject matter. She just felt very passionately about it. And two weeks later we were off and shooting the election.

Fryday:So we were supposed to be going to the inauguration with Mr. Armstrong on a bus trip with 40 of the foot soldiers. And Shirley Gavin Floyd had arranged this trip from the Civil Rights Activist Committee. Mr. Armstrong was actually offered a special seat at the inauguration and he refused it. He said, no, I'm going with my people. I'm going to ride the bus and be there with my foot soldiers. And so Gail and I were preparing. We were concerned — he was 85 years old, we wanted to make sure that he was well taken care of. So we knew it was very cold and Gail and I spent the day before, shopping, making sure he had warm shoes and you know gloves. And then we went to his home to, to bring it to him and to have him try things on. And we found him very ill. We went in and he was in congestive heart failure. We ended up taking him to the emergency room. And we spent the inauguration with him in the emergency room.

So it was, it was a difficult decision. We had a crew with us and of course they were all looking forward to going to the inauguration, but our priority was to make sure that Mr. Armstrong was, was taken care of. And so he spent ten days in the hospital. He did recover after that and went back to work. But he never did get to see the inauguration.

What challenges did you face in making this film?

Fryday:Well being my first film there were many challenges. Two that I just mentioned: the main subject of our film and my co-director both passed away during the making of the film. So things changed from the original vision of the film. Gail and I had originally planned on making this a longer documentary. We created an 18-minute sample that was used for funding. But when her health started declining we decided to use that sample that Gail very much had hands on, worked on and to submit it as a short film so we could keep it intact as much as possible.

In the original vision of the film, we were supposed to be traveling with Mr. Armstrong to the inauguration and looking back on this trip that we were taking with some 40 other foot soldiers, talking about how they got to this point and what it was like for them. And the day before the inauguration, Mr. Armstrong went into congestive heart failure and so we didn't make that bus trip. It changed the vision of the film. So I learned about flexibility.

What is the film ultimately about for you?

Fryday: I think there's so many themes and messages in the film for young people — to teach them the sacrifices that were made, the importance of not taking the rights for granted, that somebody paid a price for their right to vote and that we should never take those for granted. Mr. Armstrong says a line in the film that has always stuck with me, that the worst thing a man can do is nothing. I want to live for a purpose. And I think that it's something I try to always remember that we all need to find our purpose and live for it. I think sometimes young people and all of us think that as one person, we can't make a difference, but Mr. Armstrong's life and the lives of the other foot soldiers are proof that each of us can make a difference.