“I’ve always thought as I was growing up, the worst thing a man can do is nothing,” says James Armstrong. At 85 years old, this self-identified foot soldier of the Civil Rights Movement hasn’t spent much time doing nothing. Looking back in 2009, as Barack Obama is about to be inaugurated, Armstrong proudly directs your look at the photos and newspaper clippings that fill up every inch of space on the walls of his barbershop. “I got a lot of pictures of everybody that was doing something,” he says. And so you see, as the camera in Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday’s documentary The Barber of Birmingham pans to show pioneers ranging from Jackie Robinson to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama. Premiering on the terrific series POV’s Short Cuts on 9 August, the film tells a story of inexorable progress and work to be done, of the slow, hard fight to secure the right to vote.
This focus is underlined by a sequence showing Armstrong going to vote in November 2008, standing on a line that stretches around blocks (“It goes everywhere,” he exclaims, “This is the way it ought to be, for years now, we’re just waking up”) and then his journey home, in an Electra 225 that looks held together by wire and duct tape. Armstrong’s persistence is mirrored in another film in this year’s Short Cuts, Theo Rigby’s Sin País (Without Country). Winner of a student Academy Award, it ponders difficulties of citizenship by following the experiences of Sam and Elida Mejia. After fleeing wartorn Guatemala in 1992 with their young son Gilbert, they built a life in the US. When federal agents raided their home in 2007, the parents were eventually forced to return to Guatemala, leaving behind Gilbert, now 19, and his 13-year-old sister Helen, a US citizen.
The film makes clear the illogic and heartbreak of the Mejias’ situation, cutting between the two households in different countries. The effort and absurdity become especially visible at Christmas, when Helen—able to travel with her US passport—visits with her parents, the two groups communicate by Skype, sad faces hovering on laptop screens, in the background of domestic festivities.
The two short films are accompanied by another round of StoryCorps Shorts, again animated by the Rauch Brothers, “Facundo the Great,” and “A Family Man,” as well as “Eyes on the Stars,” in which Carl McNair remembers his brother Ronald, the NASA physicist and astronaut who died during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.