Deferring the dream 

Documentary's powerful idea doesn't quite pay off

The documentary Dare Not Walk Alone pursues a powerful idea that doesn't quite pay off. Filmmaker Jeremy Dean chronicles the Civil Rights Movement of 1964 in St. Augustine, Fla., and measures its achievements and aspirations against the realities for African-Americans in Florida some 40 years later.

Subtitled "The War of Responsibility," Dare Not Walk Alone begins with a speedy recap of the Civil Rights Movement and the factors that led the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to St. Augustine. The historical context proves to be a little blurry, but watching the archival film we're struck, as ever, by King's soft-spoken magnetism and the virulent hatred of his opposers. The film features several vivid anecdotes, including future Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young taking repeated beatings while trying to cross a St. Augustine street. Young's refusal to back down becomes a remarkable demonstration of Gandhi-style nonviolence. The film also captures an attempt to integrate Florida beaches, and the striking imagery of both marchers and hateful protesters displaying their healthy, youthful bodies in bathing suits.

The film features an intriguing cross-section of interview subjects, most notably James Brock, then-owner of the segregated Monson Motor Lodge, a motel and diner that became a hot spot for King's attempted sit-ins.

In a still-notorious moment, Brock poured acid in his swimming pools after black demonstrators began to wade in it, and the subsequent televison footage was one of the incidents that helped push the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The elderly Brock remains unrepentant of his actions yet troubled by the violent treatment of African-Americans. He also faced a historic irony: When legally forced to integrate, white racists picketed him.

The film's second half takes snapshots at the poverty for African-Americans in present-day St. Augustine, particularly a group of young rappers who see hip-hop music as their only ticket to escape. Dean brings some urgency to the film's bleak contemporary stories, but Dare Not Walk Alone doesn't find the right person, family or institution that can neatly bridge the two eras.

The film ends on a note of reconciliation as three African-American women, denied admittance to a St. Augustine church during the protests, are publicly welcomed 40 years later. However, the documentary leaves us uncertain whether this upbeat example proves the exception or the rule.

Dare Not Walk Alone. 3 stars, Tues., June 13, 9:30 p.m., at Cinefest.

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