Overlooked But Unforgotten: Documentarians Refuse to Let the Figures and Events of the Age of Unrest Fade from History
Shola Lynch, director of Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed , has had an ongoing discussion about the nature of remembrance with her father, a retired history professor at Columbia University.
Why does history so quickly forget so many fascinating people? she asks him. She knows the father-daughter, back-and-forth by heart: "I go, 'He was left out of American history!' And he says, 'A lot of people get left out.' I say, 'But that's unjust.' And he says, 'Relax.'"
But she hasn't relaxed and accepted it—and she's not alone, either. Lynch is among a growing group of documentary filmmakers making features about often-forgotten or overlooked figures and events from the turbulent 1960s and 1970s-the "backwash," so to speak, from the simultaneous political, sociological and cultural revolutions of the period.
One person Lynch felt had been left out is Shirley Chisholm, the African-American New York congresswoman who in 1972 improbably sought the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the first black woman to do so.
In that year, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote for president, Chisholm was one of many Democrats seeking the unenviable task of challenging President Nixon. But she also represented something more—the aspirations of women and minorities to fully participate as equals in all aspects of society. Including being President of the United States.
"I studied American history, and I knew very little about her," says Lynch, who at the time was too young to be aware of Chisholm's campaign. "So, as a woman and a person of color, it made me think there are all these other people who may have been left out of the American historical landscape. I thought I'd start with her while she was still alive. Often, historical documentaries tell stories about people who have already passed, so they don't get to participate in the telling of the story."
Lynch's film, which Lantern Lane is preparing for a limited theatrical release before a POV broadcast on PBS early next year, reveals just how serious and thoughtful Chisholm's campaign was.
Besides Unbought and Unbossed , there are other new documentaries about this period. One, Steve Vittoria's One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, even covers the same 1972 Democratic primary—as well as the Presidential election that underdog liberal Democrat candidate McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War South Dakota senator, lost in a landslide.
Others include Guerilla, Robert Stone's look at the Symbionese Liberation Army's (SLA) kidnapping of Patty Hearst; Negroes with Guns, about early Black Power advocate Rob Williams and his flight to Cuba; and Home of the Brave, Paola di Florio's remembrance of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker slain in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
These follow such previous works as the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, dirs./prods; Carrie Lozano and Marc Smolowiz, prods.); The Cockettes (Bill Weber and David Weissman, dirs./prods); Alcatraz Is Not an Island (James M. Fortier, dir.; Jon Plutte, prod.); MC5* A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, dir./prod.; Laurel M. Legler, prod.); Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, dir.); The Same River Twice (Robb Moss, dir./prod.) and others.
For the most part, such films are looking back at the liberal/radical side of that era's famous "generation gap," when a youth- and minority-oriented protest culture, with its own heroes and celebrities, challenged virtually everything that older society valued. Divisions over Vietnam and civil rights, especially, often spilled onto the streets. With time, the nation made its accommodations with its various rebels and moved on. Some parts of the counterculture successfully merged with mainstream pop culture, while others were written off and faded from public consciousness.
Except, apparently, from the memories of documentary filmmakers.
In a way, these new films represent a revived "power to the people" movement, albeit backward-looking, to redress history's forgetfulness. It's helped by the fact that many subjects are still alive and eager to do interviews, and also by the plethora of available footage. It's also helped by a philosophical sense of mission among the filmmakers.
"You fail a lot in pursuing success," Lynch says. "But somehow in history we only talk about the success. I could not be interested in history until I understood the failures that lead to success. And this is from a period where there was a feeling of hope that I, as an individual, could make a change. That's not failure."
That's certainly how Chisholm, herself, sees her life. Now retired, but still outspoken in the same demonstratively articulate way she was in 1972, she closes Lynch's film by saying, "I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th Century, who was a catalyst for change."
If Lynch's motivation for the Chisholm film is to teach people who she was, Vittoria's purpose in One Bright Shining Moment is to restore McGovern's reputation. Most people still have an opinion about him; he's derided as a loser.
"American history has used George McGovern's campaign for the past 30 years as a punching bag for producing the biggest presidential loss," says Vittoria, whose film will screen at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival and then seek theatrical release. "But my message is that in fact it was one bright shining moment in American politics. He was being fair and honest with people, working on issues instead of rhetoric. He got destroyed by one of the most unsavory characters in political history."
For Vittoria, the film also was a way to finally meet McGovern, who is now 81 and cooperated with the project along with Gary Hart, Warren Beatty and others active in the campaign. In 1972, as a teenager, Vittoria temporarily dropped out of high school to work for the McGovern campaign. Afterward, fired by political activism, he ran for the school board in West Orange, New Jersey, while still a 16-year-old student. It took a decision from a US Supreme Court justice to get him off the ballot.
Whereas Chisholm and McGovern sought change within the system, Rob Williams, the subject of Negroes with Guns, was ready to fight the system, if need be. A black activist in Monroe, North Carolina, in the 1950s, he got into trouble for advocating armed self-resistance against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.
Questionably charged with kidnapping a white couple, he fled to Cuba in 1961, where he exhorted blacks via his Radio Free Dixie broadcasts to fight for power. He also wrote the book Negroes with Guns, the story of his life and a manifesto, of sorts. Returning to the US in the early 1970s after first going to China, he became a symbol for the Black Panthers and other militants but never a crucial player in the civil rights movement. He died in 1996, a mere footnote.
Sandra Dickson, who wrote and co-directed (with Churchill Roberts) the film with support from the University of Florida's Documentary Institute, says she likes stories about "unsung heroes." She earlier made Freedom Never Dies, about a forgotten Southern civil rights activist, Harry Moore, who was murdered by segregationists.
"He's an incredibly important part of the civil rights movement that hasn't gotten much attention, so people don't know the story," Dickson says of Williams. "Rob was representative of the way many African-Americans felt, particularly in the South. They were non-pacifist, particularly when off the protest line."
For some filmmakers looking at contemporary America, studying the revolutionary militancy at the fringes of 1960s and 1970s protest has value. They want to root around in that era's shadowy corners, looking for hidden keys to what troubles us today.
"In many ways, there was a wound that opened in American society then, a conflict as to what sort of direction our country would go in, what we would be about, what we would stand for," said The Weather Underground 's co-director Sam Green, when interviewed by this writer for a recent Denver Post story. "That hasn't entirely healed. It keeps bubbling up in strange ways. A lot of these movies are trying to come to terms with that. They're trying to make more sense of it than simple histories of the '60s and '70s would do."
Nothing seems wilder—or more aberrant—about the period today than the story of the California-based SLA, which assassinated an Oakland school superintendent in 1973 and then kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1974. Though tiny, it was essentially a revolutionary cell. Stone's Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, about that event, will be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures in November.
The film is lively and frequently even witty, incorporating images from old movies and TV series like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Zorro to attempt to show the all-American roots for the SLA's strange ideas. Stone also shows that the group could be trenchantly biting in critiquing Big Business and Big Media, as when it issued demands on Hearst's father, newspaper publisher Randolph Hearst, to spend his money giving away food.
And when Patty Hearst joined the SLA and started participating in bank robberies and issuing leftist communiqués of her own, the story set off the kind of hysterical journalistic circus that today seems commonplace. She eventually was arrested, and she stood trial and spent time in jail; other members were either killed in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police or are in jail now for a bank robbery that resulted in a woman's death. "The story is epic," Stone says of the SLA. "I certainly think it merits a feature-length tribute."
Stone's 1987 film Radio Bikini, about the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946, was an Academy Award nominee. He subsequently directed and edited a multimedia exhibition about President John F. Kennedy for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, among other projects. He is interested in finding contemporary meaning in historical events, and believes the SLA's impact continues to reverberate.
"Their adventure really marked the end of what we know as the 1960s," he says. "A whole period of upheaval came to a symbolic crashing end with the SLA. I think that's one of the things that drew me to the story. It was a way to come to understand these crazy times we were emerging from. The SLA was probably the most extreme group politically to emerge from the time.
"One of the interesting things about the SLA is that their focus was anti-corporate," he continues. "They were ahead of the curve, and a lot of what they said was true. That was another thing that drew me to it—you could separate the craziness from the core message, and there was some truth to it, which is probably why Patty Hearst got sucked into it."
To Stone, we are not in a quieter time now, nostalgically looking back on the weirdness of those good old radical days of baby boomer youth. Since September 11, 2001, we are in a new, different kind of constant state of alert and fear—and there are lessons to be learned in the recent past.
"It's always difficult when you're in the middle of a transformative moment—as we are now—to come to grips with it and to make a film about it," he says. "It's a moving target. We're in a swirl of chaos now. That's why history is useful—to look back at things in the past where there are similarities and lessons to be learned.
"And it's best to do that with a really good story rather than doing some kind of didactic documentary about terrorism and media," he says. "If you've got a story that's compelling and you can take people on a journey and they walk out and think about something, you've made a movie."
Meanwhile, where will this documentary trend end? The better question is, What will the next one's subject be? "Is anybody doing a film on Eugene McCarthy?" asks One Bright Shining Moment 's Vittoria.
Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts and entertainment writer, whose stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and on IndieWire.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.