Director: Niels Arden Oplev | 105 minutes | drama, family | Actors: Bent Mejding, Anders W. Berthelsen, Jens Jørn Spottag, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis, Peter Hesse Overgaard, Sarah Juel Werner, Janus Dissing Rathke, Elin Reimer, Gyrd Løfqvist, Lasse Borg, Daniel Ørum, Kurt Ravn, Steen Stig Lommer , Joy-Maria Frederiksen, Tina Gylling Mortensen, Stig Hoffmeyer, Birgit Conradi, Lise Stegger, Nis Bank-Mikkelsen, Katrine Jensenius, Helle Merete Sørensen, Sandra Å. Pedersen
“We shall overcome… We shall overcome… We shall overcome some day… Oh, deep in my heart… I do believe: We shall overcome some day…” This excerpt is taken from the famous protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’, which the Afro -Americans sang as part of their emancipation and the fight for equality between white and black in the United States. On August 20, 1963, Mahalia Jackson sang this famous gospel song in front of a crowd of over 200,000 people at a peaceful mass demonstration at the Lincoln Monument in Washington. She certainly made a major contribution to the fight for the emancipation of the African Americans, hand in hand with such greats as Reverend Martin Luther King, a member of the same Mennonite Baptist church of which she herself was a member.
In the Danish family film ‘We Shall Overcome’ (original title ‘Drømmen’, which means ‘dream’, according to King’s famous saying ‘I have a dream’), a thirteen-year-old country boy Frits (Janus Dissing Rathke) is so inspired in 1969 by the ideas of the newly murdered Martin Luther King – who he sees on recently purchased television – that he decides to change his name to Martin. And he desperately needs King’s ideas in his own personal and nonviolent struggle against Mr. Lundum-Svenson (Bent Mejding, of Brothers of fame), the tyrannical headmaster of the school. He mistreats the students and imposes his will on them. After Frits is caught peeping in the girls’ dressing room, he is roughly handled by Lundum-Svenson. He spins his ears so hard that it has to be reattached to his head. Frits does not give up and takes action against the headmaster.
However, that is more difficult than expected. The only adults to side with Frits are the young, hippie-like music substitute teacher, Mr. “Call me Freddie” Svale (Anders W. Berthelsen), and his parents. But Svale has to keep Lundum-Svenson close because he wants to get a tenure at the school and Frits’ mother Stine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis, of “The Idiots” fame) also works at school as the nurse. In addition, his father Peder (Jens Jorn Spottag) has only recently been released from the hospital’s psychiatric clinic after a major depression. The students do not dare to stand behind Frits for fear of the corporal punishment of Lundum-Svenson. And to most parents, he is known to be a staunch advocate of conservative norms and values and has a lot of credit. If Frits is to be proved right, he will have to do everything he can and the inspiring example of Martin Luther King will help him on his way.
Director Niels Arden Oplev, who is also responsible for the script together with Steen Bille, used facts from his own childhood as the basis for the story. In doing so, he creates a family film of high quality that will be appreciated by viewers of all ages. The film is significantly less nihilistic and violent than his previous work (“Chop Chop” and “Portland”), yet quite daring for a youth film. Nevertheless, the film remains suitable for a mainstream (family) audience. “We Shall Overcome” can be placed in the European tradition of films with and about children who are not afraid to experience the less enjoyable aspects of growing up. Consider, for example, “My Life as a Dog” by Lasse Hallström and more recently “Les Choristes” by Christophe Barratier.
With the latter film, “We Shall Overcome” has even more in common: there is the link with the mean headmaster and music plays an important role in both films. The transition that characterized the tumultuous period of the late 1960s is portrayed in “We Shall Overcome” in both teachers. The stiff and strict headmaster Lundum Svenson represents the conservative and the past; the young, fresh Freddie Svale personifies the progressive and the future. This is also reflected in the music lessons that the children give (classical and traditional songs versus flower power). “We Shall Overcome” is by no means unique in terms of theme, but thanks to the strong acting (especially by the disarming Janus Dissing Rathke in the lead role), fresh camerawork and a good dose of delicious humor, Oplev’s film is well worth a look.