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JAMES ARMSTRONG? Barber and Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement on the nominations of “The Help” and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the best in their respective categories — and deservedly so — little attention has been paid to another gem of a nomination in the documentary short category: “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Right Movement.”
But don’t miss it when it comes out at a theatre near you, or when it arrives in DVD. It’s perfect that “Barber” is running for an Oscar during Black History Month. As most know, a “foot soldier” is one who’s trained, armed and equipped to fight on foot, especially in doing active and usually unglamorous work in support of an organization or movement.That would describe the barber of Birmingham — James Armstrong — to a T.It was the summer of 2008, and the potential nomination of Barack Obama as the first African American president compelled Bay Area photographer Robin Fryday to explore the impact of unfolding events on the aging Civil Rights activists in the South. A research trip to Alabama confirmed Fryday’s belief that the stories of those who fought for the right to vote in the 1960s needed to be captured and preserved against the backdrop of Obama’s then-nomination. She knew that African Americans who had survived the tumultuous South of the ‘50s and ‘60s would have stories to tell that would not be replicated anywhere else in the country. Thus, the idea for a documentary film was born.While Fryday had never spent much time in the South, she connected with key contacts in Birmingham and Selma who would help guide her in her quest to uncover potential characters to film. Fortuitously, she was guided to the barbershop of James Armstrong. She immediately knew he would be a strong central protagonist. She returned to the Bay Area in search of a potential partner to join her on the project and to help translate her inspiration into film. She eventually met veteran documentary producer/director Gail Dolgin who recognized the potential for a strong and important program and joined forces with Fryday. Later Birmingham’s civil rights historian and museum curator, Shirley Floyd, contributed her expansive knowledge to the project.The two agreed that the film would give voice to African Americans who had participated in the struggle and would feature James Armstrong and his barbershop as key to the unfolding events. Armstrong enthusiastically agreed to participate. Thus, “The Barber of Birmingham” project was born in 2009.At 85-years-young, jauntily wearing a bowtie and suspenders, Armstrong cut hair at his downtown Birmingham barbershop — which had been a hub for haircuts and civil rights discussions since 1955 — while recounting his experiences as a “foot soldier,” citing the pictures on the walls of his shop as he did. Among his clients was civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Armstrong used his barber chair to educate: “If you want a voice, you have to vote; you can’t complain about nothing if you don’t vote.” He is mostly known for a lawsuit he filed in August 1957 that led to the desegregation of Graymont Elementary in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Despite threats to his life and home, his lawsuit resulted in two of his sons, Dwight and Floyd, becoming the first Black children to integrate that all-White school. He took part in other significant demonstrations in Birmingham, including one aimed at integrating the Greyhound Bus Station’s waiting room. He also was part of a demonstration that sought to integrate the stores in downtown Birmingham; for his efforts, he landed in jail in April 1963. During this same period, Mr. Armstrong also worked closely with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, well-known as a key civil rights activist in Birmingham.Though he faced immeasurable dangers, Armstrong believed that “dying isn’t the worst thing a man can do—the worst thing a man can do is nothing,” he once said.No one can accuse Mr. Armstrong of doing nothing; and on the eve of the election of the first African-American president, the barber of Birmingham saw his unimaginable dream come true. For more information about this informative documentary, go to www.barberofbirmingham.com.Even better: If you’d like to see this 25-minute gem, one of its last local screenings is this Saturday at 6:15 p.m. at the Writers Guild of America, 135 S. Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills.