A minor but essential entry in a growing renaissance of U.S. documentaries detailing African-American histories in the post-civil-rights-movement era, Two Trains Runnin’ imbues a conventional template of talking heads, archival footage, and animated reenactments with urgent pacing and a storytelling command that’s uncommonly convincing, if still somewhat limited by the familiar form. Names, places, and organizations come fast and furious in Sam Pollard’s film, which functions as both an expository document on racist tensions in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 and a revival platform for “country blues.” In particular, Skip James and Son House, two missing blues musicians from Mississippi, are sought out by several young, white fans from New York. The narrative threads, initially parallel, intersect in revealing ways throughout, as Pollard demonstrates how freedom of both speech and expression speak equally, and inseparably, to art and politics.
Pollard organizes the film’s information around the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as “Freedom Summer,” an effort initiated by the Council of Federated Organizations that sought volunteers from across the U.S. to help register black voters in Mississippi. Given the status of both mobility across state lines and having the means to participate in such a project, the majority of volunteers were white and came from metropolitan hubs in New York and California. Pollard maps these movements with shots that zoom in and out of a U.S. map and complements these graphics with voices from those still living that took part in the efforts. A similar tack is taken with the musical segments, as several volunteers from Freedom Summer become obsessed with locating a number of prominent blues musicians whose work has been neglected, even largely forgotten, with the emergence of soul.
Two Trains Runnin’ teeters on reaching a higher plane of meaning simply through the efficiency of its information, which demonstrates how rediscovering cultural ghosts can be synonymous with exorcizing white nationalism. The eradication of Jim Crow is met with outright hatred from Mississippi politicians and segregationists, featured in archival footage that shows one hatemonger setting a copy of the Civil Rights Act on fire. Yet the film, aware that the bulk of its activists are white, doesn’t shy away from making clear that it took the murder of two white volunteers from New York at the hands of the KKK to “capture the imagination of the American public.” That statement comes shortly after a revival performance by Skip James of “Devil Got My Woman.” As James sings, a cut to the crowd reveals almost entirely white faces, smiling and nodding along with the song. The complexity of such cultural dynamics, where black performers entertain predominately white audiences, recalls the track’s usage in Ghost World, itself a film about the ways advertising, dominant culture, and taste making are used to both whitewash the past and oppress women and black people.
Two Trains Runnin’ forms an unofficial trilogy with the recent 13th and the forthcoming I Am Not Your Negro through its complication of historical accounts, which have conventionally understood the Civil Rights Act as the inaugurating step toward a post-racial America. It’s telling that all three films include images and footage from Ferguson, Missouri and recent police shootings, even though none of them take Black Lives Matter as their primary site of explanation. These documentaries implicitly acknowledge how believing in finite versions of history, where repressed forces cannot return, only keeps the systemic ills of racist hatreds at bay, biding their time before a groundswell brings them back into plain sight. Two Trains Runnin’ assures viewers that strides toward tolerance must be made through both public and private actions by all citizens, not just those whose lives are immediately threatened by the irrational fears of white folk.