Skip to main content

Meet the Oscar Nominated Filmmakers: Robin Fryday--'The Barber of Birmingham'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work has been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar nomination. This interview was originally published in conjunction with DocuWeeks, IDA's program that presents short and feature length documentaries to appreciative audiences in theatrical runs designed to qualify the films for consideration for the Academy Awards®. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

Synopsis: Mr. James Armstrong is a rank-and-file "Foot Soldier" and proud proprietor of Armstrong's Barbershop, a cultural and political hub in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1955. Eight-five years-young, he fought for the right to vote while carrying the American flag in the 1965 Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery. He was the first to integrate his children in the all-white Graymont Elementary School. On the eve of the election of the first African-American president, Mr. Armstrong, the barber of Birmingham, sees his unimaginable dream come true.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Robin Fryday: The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement is my first documentary film. Prior to this I worked as a still photographer. 


IDA: What inspired you to make The Barber of Birmingham?

RF: Heading into the historical election of 2008, I began thinking about those who brought us to this day, those who had risked their lives and livelihoods for the right to vote, and of the many who were alive to possibly see the nomination of the first African-American presidential candidate. I knew this was the time to capture and record these stories firsthand before it was too late.   


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

RF: We were desperately trying to raise funds to finish the film. My co-director, Gail Dolgin, fought a courageous 10-year battle with breast cancer. Sadly, in 2010 it had metastasized and spread throughout her body. Days before her death, we made the decision to finish the film as a short and submit it to the Sundance Film Festival.  Gail died on October 7, 2010.  Our film was far from completion when Sundance accepted it (from a sample) in December 2010. We had no archival or music rights and needed to raise $100,000 in the five weeks remaining until the Sundance opening to complete post-production. At that time we had less than $1,000 in our bank account. Then the village stepped in. Chicken and Egg Pictures came on as executive producers, and Judith Helfand as co-producer. With their dedication and commitment, as well as a group of filmmakers who had worked with Gail in the past, we were able to raise the money and shepherd the film through the color correction, sound mix and final editing. As we all worked feverishly to polish the film and get it to Sundance on time, we requested an extension of time for completion. We were given one extra day. Miraculously, the film arrived at Sundance on January 11, 2011, meeting their deadline. After five sold-out screenings (one with Robert Redford in attendance), we knew the long hours had been worth it.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

RF: Gail and I planned on capturing the inauguration of Barack Obama from the viewpoint of the foot soldiers. It would be the ultimate event in the lives of those who had known so much turmoil and risked so much. A busload of 40 foot soldiers was leaving from the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham and going to Washington, DC. Gail and I made sure Mr. Armstrong was included and bought him warm clothes and food for the trip. He was joyously anticipating the dream of a lifetime. 

The night before the trip, Mr. Armstrong took sick--very sick. With a film crew equally as excited about our bus trip to the inauguration as Gail and I, we faced the decision of whether to go on the trip with the 39 other foot soldiers, or stay with Mr. Armstrong. Gail and I knew immediately that we would stay with Mr. Armstrong and make sure he was taken care of. Little did we know that that decision proved to be a lifesaving one. When we returned to his home that evening to bring him some soup, we found Mr. Armstrong lying in bed barely able to breathe.  He suffered from congestive heart failure and spent the next 10 days in the ICU. As President Obama delivered his Inaugural speech, Gail and I sat on benches in the ICU waiting room, praying and crying. The bus trip to Washington had been the focus of the film. Now we had to reframe the story.


IDA: As you've screened The Barber of Birmingham--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

RF: It has been an incredible and wonderful experience to see the reaction of audiences in a variety of settings. The audiences laugh when they see Mr. Armstrong's car held together by duct tape, they cry when Mr. Armstrong falls sick, and they are angered by the injustices faced by African-Americans in this country. The most surprising has been to see how few people know about the "foot soldiers" of the Civil Rights Movement. We've all heard about the leaders, but little is known about the unsung heroes of the Movement.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

RF: Shortly before starting work on The Barber, I was very moved and inspired by the documentary Young @ Heart.


The Barber of Birmingham will be screening as a part of DocuDay in both Los Angeles and New York.

For the complete DocuDay 2012 program, click here.