The first-time filmmaker, whose debut film—the documentary-short The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—has garnered an Academy Award nod, shares the powerful story of her project’s subject, James Armstrong.
Filmmaker Robin Fryday
Tavis: Robin Fryday is a first-time filmmaker who’s been nominated the first time for (laughter) – I’m laughing – the first time for an Academy Award for her short subject documentary, “The Barber of Birmingham.”
The film tells the story of World War II vet and Alabama barber James Armstrong, and so here now a scene from “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Tavis: Back to my point – your first film –
Robin Fryday: Yes.
Tavis: – and you’re an Academy Award nominee. So how does that feel?
Fryday: Amazing. It’s a little surreal, it’s amazing, it’s unbelievable, it’s wonderful and exciting, and I’m sorry to not be able to share this moment with my co-director, who passed away last October, but she’s here in spirit.
Tavis: And for that matter, Mr. Armstrong has now passed away as well.
Fryday: And Mr. Armstrong as well passed away in 2009, yes.
Tavis: Yeah. Let me jump right into it. Tell me about James Armstrong.
Fryday: Mr. Armstrong was a barber in Birmingham. Had his shop since 1950s and cut the hair of Dr. Martin Luther King three times, but this was a man who dedicated his life to the fight for civil rights.
He carried the original flag on Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery, he integrated his two sons into the all-white Graymont Elementary School and he used his barber shop as a place to educate and teach voting rights and really dedicated his life to justice.
Tavis: How did he end up being the flag-bearer on the march from Selma to Montgomery?
Fryday: Well, he was the flag-bearer and he was a World War II vet, and so he carried the flag, and when he came back to Alabama it seemed fit that he carried the flag in that Bloody Sunday march.
Tavis: Tell me more about his reflections of what it meant to be the guy out front. Again, this is a seminal moment in American history. He’s the guy out front, hoisting the flag. Tell me more about his reflections on that moment.
Fryday: It was for him, he was so proud to carry that flag, and he carried it every single year they had a commemoration march in Selma. Mr. Armstrong was always out there, the first one in that march, carrying that flag, and he was so proud to represent this country and what it meant to be an American.
Tavis: How did he come to your attention?
Fryday: Well, I decided to make this documentary – my background is as a photographer and like you said, this is my first film. But we were heading into the 2008 election and I started to think about the people who brought us to this day, those who really paved the way, and in particular the foot soldiers who a lot of people do not know about the foot soldiers.
We all know about Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but a lot of people don’t know about the people who risked their lives and jobs and marched and integrated into the schools, and so I decided that it was important to focus on those people, the unsung heroes.
I went to Birmingham, which was known as the most segregated city in the south and in the country.
Tavis: They called it “Bombingham,” they called it Bombingham.
Fryday: Bombingham, exactly. So I took a trip there and started meeting some of the foot soldiers, and somebody said to me, “Have you met the barber?” So I took a trip to Mr. Armstrong’s barber shop, and as you’ve seen from the clip in the film, you look around and every inch of space in that barber shop was covered with memorabilia from the civil rights movement.
Tavis: It’s like a museum itself.
Fryday: It really is, and hopefully it will become a museum now that he’s passed, and hopefully that will be restored to be a museum. But when I started talking with him and learning of his own personal struggle I decided that he would be the person to tell the story through. He would represent all of the foot soldiers.
Tavis: So I assume, then, to your point now, that you knew pretty immediately that this guy was a special character.
Fryday: Absolutely. First of all, I looked at him, he was wearing his plaid pants, his bow tie, his hat, and he was just – I fell in love with him immediately, with his personality.
But then when I started to hear of his dedication to civil rights and what he had done and the sacrifices that he had made and his family have made to bring us to this day, to this election of the first African American president. I felt it was an important story to tell.
Tavis: What, specifically, were his reflections about that, specifically the election of Barack Obama?
Fryday: Well, it was very interesting, actually. Me and Gail were a little – we were surprised at a lot of the reactions of the people in the South, that for Mr. Armstrong and other foot soldiers, for them it was another step. It wasn’t the end, it wasn’t the end of the struggle, it was just one more step towards making things better.
Tavis: I’m glad to hear you say that, and that’s why I asked that question, because inside the African American community I find myself saying this to my brothers and sisters over and over and over again, some of whom seem to miss what this moment really is, oftentimes making more of it than what it is, and it’s almost sacrilegious for a Black person to say, “We can’t make more of this moment than what it is, given how much we love Barack Obama,” and I totally get that.
But I’ve tried to explain to people that what the election of Obama is, it’s a down-payment on – speaking of Dr. King – it’s a down-payment on the dream. It’s not a fulfillment of the dream.
But I’m really fascinated and actually happy to hear you say that, because I would think, and I haven’t done any, obviously, research on this, but I would think that if anybody saw this as a fulfillment, it might be those persons who are the oldest in our committee, who’ve endured the most, who never thought they would see this day come.
Indeed, I’ve met many of these older African Americans who do see this as the fulfillment. But interesting that Mr. Armstrong didn’t quite see it that way. For all he did, he saw it as a down-payment. This wasn’t the end for him, just another step.
Fryday: It was another step, it was, yes, and we were fascinated by that.
Tavis: Yeah, as am I. I’m glad to hear that he had that opinion, but so many people don’t in that regard. So what happened – he passed away in what year?
Fryday: So he passed away in 2009, in November, so Gail and I actually had one year with him, from the election of November of ’08 until November of ’09, when he passed away.
Tavis: You’re born and raised where?
Tavis: In Chicago. So what was it like for a Chicago girl to go down South all these years later (laughter) and to be baptized, these years later, in the movement?
Fryday: Well, I’m originally from Chicago. I actually live in the Bay Area now for many, many years. It was interesting and it was fascinating and I fell in love with the South. The people were – I didn’t know how I would be received, and they were so hospitable and open to me and willing to tell their stories and share their stories.
Mr. Armstrong was – I think he knew the importance of passing on his story to the next generation, and he opened up his home and his life to us. So we were very, very pleasantly surprised at, you know.
Tavis: Did you have any fear or trepidation about how you were going to be received? You’re a white woman from the Bay Area going down to Alabama.
Fryday: Exactly, and I didn’t really know. I just had this idea that this was an important moment to capture, and went to the South, but I didn’t really know how that would be received.
So like I said, I was pleasantly surprised at how open people were in wanting to share their stories.
Tavis: Does Mr. Armstrong still have family living?
Fryday: He does. He has four children who are living and he has grandchildren.
Tavis: So I assume they must be celebrating the fact that their patriarch is –
Fryday: They sure are. (Laughter)
Tavis: – is now in a project being honored or just the nomination itself is pretty serious.
Fryday: Very much so, and two of his sons were – and they’re seen in the film, the two who integrated into the school, and then his grandson, who is seen carrying the flag at the end, and he’s been carrying on Mr. Armstrong’s legacy of carrying that flag in the commemoration of Bloody Sunday.
Tavis: What does it mean for you, beyond the enthusiasm and the excitement, exhilaration of just being nominated; I get that. What does it mean to have a film like this be so honored by the Academy? What’s it mean to the life of the film?
Fryday: Well, what I think it means is that the recognition that the foot soldiers will get, that it will just bring that much more attention and recognition to the work that they’ve done, and that was the goal that Gail and I always had for the film, was to make people aware of this history and to teach the youngsters who don’t know the story and don’t know what it took to get the right to vote.
Mr. Armstrong does not want the young people to take those rights for granted. Somebody paid a price for those rights, and so that’s what I think this nomination does, is it makes people – it’ll make more of the country aware of that.
Tavis: So you do your first film, it gets nominated for an Academy Award. Has the bug bit you or are you going to get out now before you start going downhill?
Fryday: (Laughter) Well, when I first met Gail, that’s the first thing she said to me was, “Be careful, Robin, you’re going to get hooked.”
Tavis: So she was right?
Fryday: Yeah, she was right.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) So you might be back on this chair somewhere down the road.
Fryday: Well, I hope so.
Tavis: Yeah, Lucy Walker twice on this program for her nomination, so –
Fryday: Yeah, she’s done some wonderful films.
Tavis: – it could happen.
Fryday: Well, let’s hope so.
Tavis: You could be back. It’s a great project, though, and I’m honored to have you on the program.
Fryday: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Congratulations on the –
Fryday: I’m honored to be here, thank you.
Tavis: Congrats on the nomination.
Fryday: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you.
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