Review: In ‘Two Trains Runnin’,’ the Convergence of Idealism, Brutality and Artistic Genius

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A scene from “Two Trains Runnin’,” Sam Pollard’s documentary built around an astonishing historical coincidence. On June 21, 1964, two lost giants of the Delta blues were located and three civil rights activists disappeared. Credit Avalon Films

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By A. O. SCOTT ~ DEC. 1, 2016 ~ NYT

“Two Trains Runnin’,” Sam Pollard’s compact, resonant documentary — part essay film, part road picture, part musical anthology — is built around an astonishing historical coincidence. On June 21, 1964, two lost giants of the Delta blues, Skip James and Son House, were found by separate crews of obsessed music fans after weeks of amateur sleuthing along the back roads of Mississippi. James and House had each made a handful of recordings in the ’30s and ’40s, and then faded into obscurity until the folk revival of the early ’60s piqued the interest of students and coffeehouse guitar pickers in the college towns of the North.

One car, captained by the guitarist John Fahey, set out from Berkeley, Calif., in search of Son House. Another left Cambridge, Mass., following a wisp of a clue about where Skip James might be. At the same time, other, larger groups of students were preparing to travel to Mississippi for reasons having little to do with music. They were part of Freedom Summer, a campaign organized mainly by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to register black voters in the state. On June 21, three of those activists — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss. They were killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

With deep historical knowledge and nimble storytelling techniques, Mr. Pollard explores how idealism, horrific brutality and artistic genius converged in a single historical moment. Interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, scholars and musicians are complemented with archival material, animation (which is fast becoming a staple of modern documentary filmmaking) and the retrospective thoughts of critics, journalists and musicians. Some of these are a little distracting. It’s nice to hear Lucinda Williams, Gary Clark Jr. and others testify to (and demonstrate) the enduring influence of James and House, but it’s infinitely more valuable to hear the men themselves.

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A scene from “Two Trains Runnin’.” In it, interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, scholars and musicians are complemented with archival material, animation and the retrospective thoughts of critics, journalists and musicians. Credit Avalon Films

In any case it never hurts to be reminded of the power of what the critic Albert Murray described as “that artful and sometimes seemingly magical combination of idiomatic incantation and percussion,” i.e. the blues. The juxtaposition of music and politics — the retelling of a familiar story from the civil rights era in a slightly new key — sheds light on both the music and the movement. The voice-over narration (read by the rapper and actor Common) braids apparently disparate threads into a single tale.

Its unifying theme is recognition. The push for voting rights, like other facets of the long struggle against legal and institutional white supremacy in the South, was predicated on the assertion of African-American humanity. The intensity of the resistance to the idea of black citizenship — the terror and violence that white authorities unleashed against it — shocked many whites and helped make civil rights a national cause. The simultaneous rediscovery of an African-American musical form that had suffered neglect and condescension had a similar effect, and artistic innovators like Skip James and Son House belatedly received the recognition (and at least some of the money) that had long been their due.

There is great warmth and generosity in the way “Two Trains Runnin’” acknowledges the role of white blues fans and civil rights workers, many of whom risked comfort and safety in the cause of black equality. But Mr. Pollard, an Academy Award-winning director, producer and editor whose filmography includes the PBS civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize” and many collaborations with Spike Lee, is not telling a feel-good story about injustices overcome and careers reborn.

The song that gives the film its title (one it shares with a play by August Wilson) characteristically mixes hope and fatalism in uncertain proportions. One train leaves at midnight, the other at the break of day. Like many blues lyrics, this one is open to endless interpretation, but in the context of this movie — the past it evokes and the moment at which it arrives — it sounds like both an affirmation and a warning. Human history may bend toward the light, but it also passes through long periods of darkness. Hard-won rights can be taken away. Progress can be rolled back. Long-forgotten songs can be remembered, but the opposite can also happen. This captivating movie, like the blues itself, is at once a recognition of those somber truths and a gesture of protest against them.

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During the summer of 1964 — when hundreds of students were assembling in Mississippi to join the Civil Rights movement — two groups of young men traveled to the state in search of a pair of legendary blues musicians. This film tells their story.“Two Trains Runnin’” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. ~

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