Local filmmaker takes on the civil rights struggle from a foreign perspective

Julian Bond. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival Julian Bond. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

Eduardo Montes-Bradley drove nearly 50,000 miles up and down the East Coast with his family, searching for a place to put down roots. The Argentine-born filmmaker settled on Charlottesville for a variety of reasons—the University, the proximity to mountain and ocean, and the public schools.

“There was a series of factors but the most important was the education of our children, which had to be public because I believe in public education,” Montes-Bradley said.

Montes-Bradley’s films focus on literary figures and political themes. A documentary on the author Jorge Luis Borges first brought him to UVA in 1999 for a talk, and a work on samba and African influence in Brazil delves into the larger issues of race and economic inequality.

His latest work, Julian Bond, is a bio-sketch of “the civil rights movement seen through the eyes of the protagonist.” The film’s subject, Julian Bond, professor emeritus of history at UVA, was a student leader during the civil rights struggle who, as spokesperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, drove from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington.

“My job was to give Coca-Colas to the movie stars,” Bond said of his work on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day.

Bond went on to become the first president of Southern Poverty Law Center, the chairman of the NAACP, and a respected Georgia legislator for 20 years. As a figure who’d lived through a period of our country’s history that is already oversimplified and mythologized, Bond offers a point blank view of the proceedings as well as the assured panoramic voice of someone satisfied with the part he played.

But the film’s gems are the off-guard moments when he explains to Montes-Bradley behind the camera how our country used to work, like his first awareness of Jim Crow as a child.

“I knew this was a condition. I couldn’t understand who made it happen, who was in charge of it, what it really meant, but I knew there was a difference between myself and the other people I saw whose skin was not the same color,” Bond says.

Part of the documentary is filmed in Bond’s UVA classroom, as he teaches a new generation about the civil rights movement. That narrative is juxtaposed with a history montage that tells his origin story, a nearly archetypal tale. His great-grandmother was given as a wedding present to a white mistress and bore a child, James, by her planter husband. James, Julian’s grandfather, walked from Georgia to Berea College in Kentucky during Reconstruction with his school tuition, a cow, in tow.

Julian Bond grew up as part of a segregated black elite. His father, a college president, was friends with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes was a mentor who encouraged him as a young writer.

Montes-Bradley is fascinated by Bond as a person and also as a living window on history.

“I can’t seem to bring myself to isolate that period, which is what textbooks do in order to make life easier for everyone. History is one, indivisible and extremely complex,” Montes-Bradley said. “Understanding Selma and the March on Washington helps me better understand the massacre of Tlatelolco, the student movements in Paris and Berlin, and my own frustrations with the Argentine experience. I owe that much, and perhaps more, to the perspectives and generosity of Mr. Bond.”

According to Montes-Bradley, the film already has a worldwide distribution deal through Alexander Street Press. It also has a Kickstarter page and a Facebook presence with nearly 5,000 fans. All of that to hammer home a message that the work of integrating our racially stratified society is not at all over.

“Our schools which were supposedly integrated by the Supreme Court decision of 1954 are now almost as segregated today as they were then,” Bond says in the film’s final moments.

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