‘Freaknik’ Documentary Invites Viewers to Black College Spring Break

‘Freaknik’ Documentary Invites Viewers to Black College Spring Break

It’s an accepted spring break axiom that you can retake a class but you can’t relive a party. Until now, that’s been true of Freaknik, the annual bass-rattling spring break street party that drew hundreds of thousands of Black college students to Atlanta throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Traffic crawled. Music blared. Booties were shaken.

“It’s a throwback time of nostalgia when we weren’t all on our phone or always trying to take a selfie,” said P. Frank Williams, the director of “Freaknik: The Wildest Party Never Told,” a documentary that aims to immerse viewers in the celebration when it premieres on Thursday on Hulu. “We were just enjoying the moment. It was about these young Black people finding freedom in a world that really didn’t welcome them, in a city that is one of the Blackest places on the planet.”

Over time, Freaknik exploded from its roots as a local event organized by students at the Atlanta University Center into a nexus for Black college students from across the country. “They said it was Freaknik, and I just thought that I wanted to bring the freak into the ’nik and then it went from zero to 100 real fast,” said Luther Campbell, the rapper known as Uncle Luke, who is an executive producer of the film.

Police and elected officials ended Freaknik after 1999 amid public safety concerns and reports of sexual assault. Other cities in recent years have sought to restrict Black spring breakers through curfews, bag checks and traffic rerouting. Miami Beach rolled out a social media campaign this year to discourage visitors.

To tell the story of a party that became legendary before social media, “Freaknik: The Wildest Party Never Told” highlights several of the era’s artifacts that were essential to partygoers’ experience. We spoke with the makers of the film about five of them.

Don’t be surprised to find your father or auntie cutting up in the documentary. “Freaknik” features a trove of footage from VHS cassettes and DVDs that had been safely locked away in attics and basements for decades.

The filmmakers first searched Campbell’s garage for Freaknik footage. Then Campbell and the pioneering music producer Jermaine Dupri, also an executive producer of the documentary, asked followers on social media for their old Freaknik tapes.

“That was your social media,” Campbell said. “The same thing that we’re doing right now today when we’re posting, back then, you saw the footage among your friends at the house and you liked it.”

Film poured in. Most of it had to be digitized after being originally captured by the sizable over-the-shoulder camcorders omnipresent at Freaknik.

“These camcorders was about 70 pounds,” said Nikki Byles, a “Freaknik” producer. “People were walking around with them just willy-nilly on your shoulder.”

Combing through the submissions took months. “Sometimes you watch those tapes, and it might be a mix of Freaknik and somebody’s baptism on the same tape,” said Geraldine Porras, the film’s showrunner.

Those who submitted film signed releases for it to be used in the documentary. And, since Freaknik mostly took place on the streets of Atlanta, attendees who were caught on camera could be filmed without an expectation of privacy. Porras described a balance in depicting the essence of the party against its salacious moments.

“We wanted to capture the essence of, you are young and having fun,” she said. “Then we did take liberties with the more explicit stuff in blocking people out, because at the end of the day, we don’t want to expose anyone. That’s not what this documentary is.”

Freaknik brought a tapestry of hairstyles, especially among women hoping to stand out. “The beehive hairstyles, the waves, the feathered hair — they were all really epic hairstyles of that time,” Porras said.

Pump It Up! Spritz Gold Super Hold by Bronner Brothers held those styles together.

“Pump It Up hair spray could literally hold a body to a wall,” Byles said. “It was no other way for you to live your life during Freaknik without having the Pump It Up. It still has a distinct smell. It smells like flowers and sticky. I don’t know how sticky smells, but that’s what it smelled like.”

Porras added: “You were out there all day in Atlanta. It can get hot. You’re meeting people. You’re walking a lot of places. You really had to make sure that your hair was on point, and Pump It Up spray was how you were going to make sure you got that done.”

The itty-bitty jean shorts displaying the architecture of one’s posterior were a Freaknik staple.

“Girls would go and cut their pants and because they couldn’t afford the same outfit, they would be designers on their own,” Campbell said. “What you see right now today that people are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on is the look back then.”

To Porras, the shorts represented a movement beyond fashion.

“Atlanta is a particularly conservative place, and so the ’90s and Daisy Dukes felt like a representation of women breaking free and wanting to express themselves through their fashion, through the dancing,” Porras said. “This was booty shaking or twerking before twerking was even a word.”

The Japanese car manufacturer Suzuki introduced the four-wheel-drive Samurai in the United States in 1985 with a huge ad campaign that boasted of its “rough, tough and brush-busting” attributes.

“They was giving those away with gas,” Byles said. “Everybody had a Samurai Suzuki.”

The vehicle became a favorite of Freaknik descenders because of its affordability, reliability and the detachable soft top that allowed back-seat passengers to mingle in the open air.

“That was the epitome of stunting at the time,” Porras said.

For Dupri, the car represented an era when people would be willing to drive hours just to party.

“Now, everybody act like they have to fly, and girls don’t seem like they would even get in a car and drive hours to a place and just hang out,” he said.

Despite a loyal following, Suzuki withdrew the Samurai from the United States market in 1995 after low sales and amid a prolonged fight with Consumer Reports over its assessment that the vehicle was prone to flipping over.

Campbell and other music promoters employed street teams to approach idling cars during Freaknik and hand out cassette samplers. Most contained a full song or two and snippets of other tracks, whetting appetites for the rest of the album.

“I’m an independently owned Black record company, first hip-hop company in the South, no budget,” Campbell said. “My budget was really getting college students to listen to the music, to be able to take it when they go back home to wherever they were going at and then have the music spread.”

Dupri said the standstill traffic offered an opportunity. “They might not listen to it immediately, but they’re going to listen to it at some point because they stuck in traffic,” he said.

When Outkast’s debut, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” was released in April 1994, Freaknik became a major platform for the Atlanta rap duo. “Outkast’s sampler spread like weeds,” Rico Wade, the album’s producer, says in the documentary. “It was like you was hearing it in everybody’s car, and it meant you was cool.”

Dupri added: “When we talk about Southern hip-hop, especially from those that think Atlanta has been running the game for so long, the beginning of that running the game started at Freaknik.”

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