Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round (2024)

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What does it take to revitalize history that embodied racial discrimination and make it meaningful in contemporary circumstances? With engaging elements, Ilana Trachtman, in her new documentary film “Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round: An Untold Civil Rights Story” achieves connection between the 1960 racial discrimination protest at Maryland’s Glen Echo Amusement Park and today’s White Supremacy movement that pervades the 2024 United States presidential election. Trachtman does this with eyewitness accounts sometimes from surprising participants, with clever motion graphics, with an upbeat original music score, and by pointing out historic early positioning relative to such events as the 1961 Freedom Rides for Civil Rights.

The core story hinges on students from Howard University in Washington, DC, targeting the whites only amusement park with its well-maintained swimming pool, rollercoaster ride, carousel, and other attractions. A streetcar from the District of Columbia could be ridden by everyone to Glen Echo, but only white people were admitted to this privately owned amusement park. However, there was one exception during Richard Nixon’s Vice Presidency (1953-1961) when, under special arrangements with Glen Echo’s manager, the Nixon daughters were sent with the decidedly brown-skinned son of Indonesia’s President Sukarno to enjoy such things as a ride on the rollercoaster.

Being located close to the seat of government power clearly worked in favor of the Black students’ protest. What they didn’t expect was white people—mostly women—in an adjacent community to the Park would join in the protest from the first day. These whites living in Bannockburn, predominately from Jewish families, often with someone who worked for federal government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, had banded together to build a cooperative housing community which skirted the covenants prohibiting Jews from living in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Surprising among the protestors were two survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, one of whom said she was protesting the Park’s discrimination because nobody had stood up for her as a Jew and stopped the Nazis. And yes, the 1960 picketing attracted members of the American Nazi Party in their brown shirts.

Another surprise was testimony from a Quaker mother of five children who actively walked the picket line, most of the time with her children, as well as served lemonade and cookies to the protestors. When asked how she liked living in a Jewish community, she said her beliefs aligned with her neighbors’ and, furthermore, she never allowed her kids to go into Glen Echo because of its discrimination. Due in large part to Bannockburn resident Hyman Bookbinder, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, prominent civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, and A. Phillip Randolph of the brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters walked the Glen Echo picket line carrying signs.One particularly moving account came from a woman who was dressed in her favorite blouse, and it was ruined for her when a man spit in her face and that spit fell on the crocheted collar of her blouse. She said she just kept on walking without acknowledging what had happened because she understood this was the nonviolent behavior expected by the students.

Trachtman stated in an email exchange with this reviewer that her goal for “Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round” was to achieve an “immersive film” that does not “editorialize or connect the 1960 protests to today’s.” To achieve immediacy—a feeling that you, the viewer, is experiencing this moment in history—the filmmaker does not use narrators or talking heads. Instead, she employed various types of animations that brought to the foreground such details as newspaper stories in their original fonts, the mimeographed “picketing instructions,” and an active map showing the streetcar moving from DC to Glen Echo Park. In telling the protest-motivation stories of her four main student protagonists, she used what she described as “more artistic animation.” For example, she showed one Black student as a young boy testing boundaries in his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia, by running in the front door to access the whites only library stacks and then gleefully running out before he could be apprehended. Such animations avoided re-creations with living actors that might make audience question what else was made up by the filmmaker.

Percussive music like short piano runs and the quick striking of a bell provide emphasis and accents to statements made. These sounds in tandem with the motion graphics give an energetic fluidity to the film. Voices like those of prominent actors Jeffrey Wright and Mandy Potinkin used to read letters to the editor add to the enlivenment of Trachtman’s soundscape.

Recitation of Langston Hughes’ poem “Merry-Go-Round” provided its own music and points to Trachtman’s title.

Merry-Go-Round
by Langston Hughes

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

(“Merry-Go-Round” was published in the poet’s 1942 collection Shakespeare in Harlem.)

The filmmaker left no loose ends. She let us know that Glen Echo was the first amusement park to be integrated with a white community supporting Black student protestors. While some amusement parks in the U.S were integrated before Glen Echo, so many others were off limits to people of color and particularly Blacks in that timeframe. She also showed us that some of the organizing Glen Echo Park protestors went on to participate in the Freedom Rides for Civil Rights that took place in the American South and then in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King delivered his I Had a Dream speech. “Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round” is a film that informs with entertaining creativity.

2024 screenings include: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 25 & 31), Indianapolis Black Documentary Film Festival (August 24), and Washington DC JCC (September 15-19).

Karren LaLonde Alenier

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