Freedom Road: The Vernon Johns Story (1994)
Laying the Foundations
As a Brit born in the early 70s and who went through the British education system it should come as little surprise that my knowledge of the American Civil Rights movement is slim. Yes I know names and certain events, some of which I have learned through my love of cinema but I admittedly know very little and had never heard of Vernon Johns before sitting down to watch "Freedom Road: The Vernon Johns Story". But you don't need to know anything about Vernon Johns to watch and be moved by this powerful movie which features the perfect casting of James Earl Jones as the forceful leader.
Having been away from his family for the last 6 months Vernon Johns (James Earl Jones - Sommersby) arrives in Montgomery, Alabama where the Deacons of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church hope he will become their new minister. But Vernon not only sees the usual racism and segregation which he has encountered else where but he also sees a church full of vanity, a church full of people who having been allowed to have businesses are more concerned with preserving what they have than fighting for equality.
As I mentioned you don't need to know who Vernon Johns was to be captivated by "The Vernon Johns Story" as with out spoon feeding you it tells various angles of this man's life in Montgomery. On one hand we see him taking on the established racism, understanding money is power and by refusing to use white shops and services believes if others did the same things would have to change. We also see how he takes on the church he has come to lead as he sees them as proud people who see themselves as better than other black people because they have businesses and fine clothes and certainly don't want the boat rocked. But we also see how his conviction in what he believes and expects from his family let alone others causes problems especially for his teenage daughter who fears one day he will be killed. And whilst all this is going on we get what is the typical, none less so powerful imagery of racism, from beatings and rape to murder with the black community fearful of what will happen if they speak out.
All of this makes for a very powerful and enlightening movie which tells Vernon Johns' story and how he came to be known as the father of the American Civil Rights Movement. Not only does it have powerful writing but also powerful performances from the entire cast be it Joe Seneca as the full of pride Deacon Wilkes to Nicolle Rochelle as Vernon's daughter Baby Dee. But "The Vernon Johns Story" rests firmly on James Earl Jones and for me he delivers one of his most powerful performances. I don't mean that his voice booms out as he preaches to the congregation but it is a performance which from start to finish is full of conviction so you believe everything he does and says is done with belief.
What this all boils down to is that "Freedom Road: The Vernon Johns Story" is a powerful and moving movie which even if you have never heard of Vernon Johns gets and keeps you gripped thanks to great writing and a great performance.
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