‘Like Father, Like Son’ and ‘Freedom Summer’ both exceptional

See "Freedom Summer" during a free screening on May 18, hosted by WBGH/WCAI, at the M.V. Film Center.

Two exceptionally accomplished films play this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Opening Friday, May 16, is Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda wise and moving “Like Father, Like Son,” about the impact on two families of their sons being switched at birth.  And MacArthur fellow and Vineyard summer resident Stanley Nelson will attend and answer questions for the screening of his equally striking new documentary, “Freedom Summer,” on Sunday, May 18. Thanks to WGBH/WCAI, the 4 pm screening is free.

“Like Father, Like Son”

“Like Father, Like Son” creates powerful portraits of two very different families whose sons have been switched at birth. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a successful architect and a workaholic. He doesn’t make much time for his wife or his son Keita (Keita Ninomiya), and when he does, he enforces strict discipline. After the country hospital where Keita was born informs him and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) that Keita is not their son due to a nurse’s error, his world is turned upside down.

Yudai (Riri Furanki) is Keita’s birth father and a much more laid-back, lower middle-class merchant. He and his wife Yukari (Yoko Maki) have three children, and their son Ryusei turns out to be the birth son of Ryota and Midori.

The two families try to sort out a strategy for dealing with this life-changing set of events. While their decision is not as extreme as the Judgment of King Solomon of Israel, where two women who claimed to be the mother of the same child were told to cut the child in half, it’s plenty distressing.

The first step the two families take is to have each child spend a weekend with their biological parents. The big question is, should the two families exchange the boys permanently? When the nurse who switched the babies at birth provides testimony, the result adds to the dilemma. As the story unfolds, the fathers in particular reveal their personalities and their parenting skills.

Like many Asian filmmakers, director Koreeda gives viewers an acutely sensitive view of the environments the two families inhabit. Ryota and Midori live in a luxurious high-rise apartment that Ryota’s mother and Yudai both describe as like a hotel. Yudai, Yukari, and their three children live behind the store they run. Ryota’s mother and father, who divorced long ago, also weigh in about the switched baby dilemma.

Although “Like Father, Like Son” is redolent with the trappings of Japanese culture, its themes have universal import. Class issues raise their ugly heads, as do parenting styles. Along with subtle character development, the film’s cinematography is sensitive and beautifully wrought. “Like Father, Like Son” won two jury prizes at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival; it is a film not to be missed.

Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Summer”

Vineyard summer resident Stanley Nelson has built an impressive list of documentary films delineating key moments in the history of the American civil rights movement. “Freedom Summer” surely belongs at the apogee of his cinematic achievements.

Deftly manipulating archival footage and interviews, he captures the essence of summer 1964 in Mississippi when some 700 students worked to register African Americans as voters. At the time, Mississippi was a deeply racist society, where voting registrars routinely rejected blacks trying to register and devised ways to retaliate against those who tried.

Mr. Nelson builds his story slowly and without bombast, describing how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized mostly white college students as canvassers in Mississippi. As SNCC executive director Jim Forman said, “Crack Mississippi and you’ve cracked the whole South.”

Members of local Citizen’s Councils, rather than the Ku Klux Klan, initially enforced the rules of segregation then common in this part of the world. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper with an eloquent voice, represented a new kind of hero for the oppressively segregated world of Mississippi. The disappearance and death of three civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, catalyzed the movement and led to formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic convention.

In addition to voter registration during what became known as Freedom Summer, civil rights workers from outside Mississippi ran Freedom Schools that gave many blacks their first introduction to black history. Despite his later support for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson played a villain in the 1964 Democratic convention, using his vice presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther to pressure delegates not to allow the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to represent Mississippi democrats. In an era when so many cinematic heroes find their origins in comic books and stereotypes, Mr. Nelson created lasting portraits of individuals whose commitment to the civil rights movement demonstrates an unparalleled, real-world strength of character and heroism.

“Like Father, Like Son,” Friday, May 16, and Saturday, May 17, 7:30 pm, $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under.

“Freedom Summer,” Sunday, May 18, 4 pm. Admission free.

All screenings at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.