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Ohio Civil Rights Doc ‘Free to Ride’ Comes to Gateway

Hope Madden Hope Madden Ohio Civil Rights Doc ‘Free to Ride’ Comes to GatewayPhoto via Free To Ride trailer on Vimeo.
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Bussing has been an issue of civil rights from the beginning, but is there still social relevance in the topic?

Jamaal Bell of The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute says yes.

Along with producer/writer Matt Martin, Bell made the documentary Free to Ride. His film explores a precedent-setting achievement. Simply installing three bus stops between Dayton and Beavercreek, Ohio made history.

In 2012, attorney Ellis Jacobs contacted the Kirwan Institute. He enlisted their help to put together materials needed for a complaint he intended to file with the Federal Highway Administration.

Kirwan is an applied research institute out of OSU. According to their website, the institute collaborates with organizations and communities to “Think creatively and critically about race and ethnicity and their connection to issues affecting opportunity.”

According to Bell, Director of Communications at Kirwan, “We provide research to community partners – research about their communities, specifically.”

The population of Beavercreek is less than 5 percent African American, while Dayton’s population is about 40 percent African American.

Bell says Jacobs wanted to prove disparate impact, in that the lack of transportation from Dayton to Beavercreek would cause a significant problem in terms of access to employment.

“Ellis Jacobs contacted us to help create maps,” Bell says, “to show where people live and how barriers exist in access. We created those maps for them to enhance their case.”

The news that Beavercreek was found in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act sparked a new kind of collaboration.

“This is a big deal,” Bell says. “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act – disparate impact – doesn’t happen that often because you’re not trying to prove intent. We needed to find a way to get this out there.”

Bell and Martin decided on a documentary – a first for the Kirwan Institute and for the filmmakers.

There were obstacles.

“In the beginning, I thought, this is a story about bus stops. I don’t know if this is something people are going to want to watch,” he admits.

“So we interviewed people who were involved,” he says. “We saw how much passion these people had about the issue. And the media covered this thing so heavily, I thought, ‘Wow, this must be a big deal. I think this is bigger than just bus stops.’”

“It’s a story about who can go where,” he says. “And who can tell someone that they can’t go somewhere.”

A lack of filmmaking experience posed another problem, however.

“It’s a crazy process of people with no experience in filmmaking at all just being inspired,” Bell says.

“Matt went to Wright State and he used to work at the Miami Valley planning commission,” Bell explains. “I felt like I could do this technically and creatively, and Matt knew that area and knew that story and could get to those nuances.”

They had some help, too.

“Once we realized that we had a beast on our hands, because we had all this material, we connected with some local filmmakers,” Bell says. “They told us it’s OK to cut. You can’t fall in love with everything. They really advised us and helped us put it together.”

Bell’s pleased with the final result.

“It was a civil rights story that actually had a happy ending, and that just doesn’t happen often,” he says. “So many poke at your hope for the future, but this was something different. It shows community action in an organized fashion, and they won!”

You can catch Free to Ride at Gateway Film Center June 23-29.

For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her podcasts FRIGHT CLUB and THE SCREENING ROOM.

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