By Nancy Austin, PhD – newportFILM Outdoors Summer 2018 Humanities Blogger

With support from the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities (RICH)

“There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.” 

This quote is by the writer August Wilson discussing his Pulitzer-nominated 1990 play, Two Trains Running. The play is considered to be “one of the finest plays ever written about race relations in modern America.” In it, Wilson explores an African-American community in a Pittsburgh neighborhood navigating the turbulence of the 1960s civil rights movement.  Wright’s play feels like one of the many parallel tracks laid down by the filmmaker Sam Pollard in his call and response film of almost the same title and also about individuals and communities creatively rising to respond to the ferment that is the civil rights movement. Pollard’s new film, Two Trains Runnin’ (2016), is being shown July 26th as part of newportFILM’s ambitious summer 2018 series of documentaries held outdoors each Thursday from June to September for free at different cultural venues across Aquidneck Island.

Wilson’s play is set in Pittsburgh with a central character seeking justice during the neighborhood destruction that was 1960s urban renewal. A refrain is the option to leave this changing Northern industrial city and hop back on one of the two trains running daily back to the South. But what would that mean? Can we go home again? As a country, how can we not revisit our roots and dialogue to a different ending?

August Wilson died in 2005, and it’s tempting to see Pollard as riffing on the themes of Wilson’s Century Cycle of plays. Reimagining them in a new medium for a new twenty-first century audience. Sam Pollard’s film narrative is built around the unlikely coincidence of three groups of non-southern whites making that trip to the South for very different reasons, but all seeking to re-engage the roots of American history. The film’s flash point is the Freedom March Summer of 1964 deep in Mississippi, and Pollard brings to this story the same simmering energy with which he infused the Spike Lee films he edited. Two Trains Runnin’ combines animation, voice-over, archival footage, and dramatization into a spellbinding look into the heart of America.

Pollard offers an alternative, even redemptive, history of the American South that summer of 1964 by pairing the brutality of the political fight over the civil right to vote with the innocent young music loving whites who went on a road trip South to find a different history of America as manifest in the the raw emotional authenticity of the surviving Delta Blues musicians, Skip James and Son House. Do we look to the South to tell stories of death or of generative life? Or both, as in this film. Is it a shared history? Many consider African-American music our country’s most original art form, and Two Train Runnin’ breaks new ground by pointedly colliding political and cultural history. The goal here is not America in equilibrium, but the restless struggle to get this better and witness lives of dignity lived against all odds in a still-divided America. The medium for this diverse history cannot be contained in a book. Two Trains Runnin’ is a call, waiting our response.

Please join newportFILM on July 26, 2018 for Two Trains Runnin’, screening at 8:20pm on the St. Michael’s Country Day School Lawn, 180 Rhode Island Avenue, Newport, RI. This event is free and open to the public beginning at 5:30pm. Live music by Cee Cee & the Riders beginning at 6:50pm. NOTE: this evening features the 5th Annual pre-film Picnic Contest on the theme of “Peace, Love, and Music”, so go for it! BYO and food truck options. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities is saving a spot for 50 people to join in a Humanities Happy Hour of pre-film conversation; if interested, please rsvp to the Humanities Council. This memorable summer night wraps up with post-film discussion between the producer and writer Benjamin Hedin and Rita Houston, DJ and Program Director WFUV in New York City.  What’s not to love about newportFILM!?  Have comments to share? Join the discussion on the newportFILM blog.