Skip to main content

The Roots of Social Issue Docs: Movement Born in the 1930s Came of Age in the 1960s

By Richard Wormser

Diahann Carroll (left) and Tony Brown. From 'Black Journal,' the PBS series from the late 1960s. Courtesy of Thirteen/WNET New York.

I have always considered myself privileged to have had my baptism of fire as an apprentice documentary filmmaker in the turbulent 1960s. It was a time of great social and cultural upheavals and a time of violent brutality and political repression. The era began with the civil rights movement's assault against segregation, a flood of protest that in turn fructified into a series of liberation movements for a variety of oppressed groups—the anti-Vietnam war movement protesting the senseless slaughter of Americans and Vietnamese; women demanding equality in all phases of the country's social, economic, sexual and political life; gay people revolting against the stigmas, indignities and brutality imposed upon them, forcing many to live underground lives. And wherever the action was—civil rights confrontations, voter registration drives, anti-war demonstrations, police terror—filmmakers were in the front lines

The presence of filmmakers in the heart of the action, as filmmaker/educator George Stoney points out, was due in part to Ricky Leacock, Bob Drew, Donn Pennebaker and Al and David Maysles. "All of us who were involved in the 1960s filmmaking community owed them a huge debt for their determined efforts to develop a mobile film technology," Stoney maintains. Their efforts transformed existing synchronized film equipment from the cumbersome 35mm camera and sound deck to portable cameras and sound systems. Their mission was to capture life in all its immediacy and spontaneity. They became the founders of what was commonly called cinéma vérité filmmaking or direct cinema. It was a technique that was perfectly suited to the age.  

Although the cinéma vérité social documentaries introduced innovative techniques, many of the progressive films made in the 1960s were rooted in a tradition that began in the 1930s, another turbulent era in American history. I had the good fortune to have had the opportunity to talk at length with Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke and Leo Selzter—three of many filmmakers who had made socially progressive films in the 1930s. Some were radicals—either members of or affiliated with the American Communist Party. They identified with Karl Marx's dictum: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." For them, film was a weapon to be used in the class war that would lead to revolutionary change.

The radicals organized cine-clubs under the banner of The Film and Photo League. Filmmakers produced documentary/newsreels that exposed and attacked racism, evictions, police brutality, fascism and all that was oppressive in American Society. They documented hunger marches, strikes and political rallies. The League eventually reorganized as Frontier Films produced documentaries like Native Land (1942), Leo Hurwitz's dramatic re-creation of real-life cases of civil rights abuses; People of the Cumberland (1937), Ralph Steiner's film about Appalachia; and Heart of Spain (1937), Paul Strand's and Leo Hurwitz's documentary about the Spanish Civil War. 

Liberal filmmakers of the 1930s also focused on social problems and inequities, but sought solutions within existing institutions. Filmmakers like Pare Lorentz promoted Roosevelt's New Deal as the needed instrument of social change. Two of his most successful films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), were made for the federal government. In The River, Lorentz showed how industrialism's reckless pursuit of wealth often destroyed both the sources of that wealth and the people that produced it. The River promoted rational federal control of the river valleys such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a solution. Lorentz was not alone in his belief that the New Deal would correct social inequities. Many artists of that period—not only filmmakers—felt that the federal government had finally come around to their way of thinking. For a brief moment, a symbiotic relationship existed between enlightened government policies and the arts. By the end of the 1930s, this relationship was all but over.

During World War II, documentaries, with occasional exceptions, were mobilized to serve the war effort, mostly as propaganda. After the war, television became a new venue for showing documentaries. Although by nature conservative, and wary of offending its sponsors and the government, the networks produced some outstanding social documentaries in the 1950s. CBS produced See It Now, with Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly, which exposed the demagogic tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1960, CBS Reports produced Harvest of Shame, about the exploitation of migrant labor. Like most television documentaries, they were narrative-driven with visuals used to support the text. NBC produced some social documentaries on its White Paper and ABC on Close Up.

But despite the social upheavals that were dividing the country in the '60s, network television, with a few exceptions, seemed reluctant to examine the issues in depth. The nightly news ran footage of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, dealing more with images of violence than with meanings to the struggle. Only public television stations like WNET in New York City were willing to tackle the issues, and even then many filmmakers had to scrounge around for funding.

Jack Willis and Fred Wardenburg made Streets of Greenwood with their own savings. Willis became committed to civil rights while working at an entry-level position in the CBS newsroom. He was in a black bookstore in Harlem, and was astonished to discover black images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. A black man in the store asked him if he had ever seen a black Jesus before. Willis said no. "Then he began to teach me about racism in America, things that I had been aware about in a general way but never in such depth," Willis recalls. "I asked the man his name. He introduced himself as Malcolm X."

Willis continued to visit Harlem and listen to Malcolm and other nationalist speakers. And he taught himself how to use a camera. When the voter registration drive began in Greenwood, Mississippi, Willis and Wardenburg went South to make their film.  Willis continued to make social and political documentaries for WNET.  

Just as Willis and Wardenburg self-funded Streets of Greenwood, so, too, did Bill Jersey end up funding his film in 1968 when he organized a group of filmmakers to cover the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. Tension was building as tens of thousands of anti-war protesters streamed into the city to peacefully demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. The film Season's Change (1968) documented how the police and the National Guard brutally assaulted demonstrators and non-demonstrators alike. Yet, only a few local television stations, including Channel 5 in New York, aired the program, and Jersey was never reimbursed for his expenses.  Jersey ended up funding and directing the completion of the film, but many other people made some contributions to the production. According to Jersey, "It was my first and last attempt at communal filmmaking."

 In fact, independent documentaries seldom received an airing on network television, no matter how highly acclaimed they were. When Bill Jersey made one of the major civil rights films of the era, the Academy Award-nominated A Time for Burning (1966), CBS had planned to show it but inexplicably backed out.

Filmmakers who labored for radical documentary organizations like Newsreel did make anti-war films, but they seldom received wide distribution. It was not until the 1970s, when PBS aired Felix Greene's Inside North Vietnam (1967) and CBS broadcast Peter Davis' The Selling of the Pentagon (1971) that television began to examine the war.

One revolutionary change came about when black filmmakers, long excluded from the documentary filmmaking process, insisted on having their voices heard. As filmmaker St.Clair Bourne recalls, "African-American people especially resented...the lack of presence in the electronic media and the negative distortion that took place when we were represented." Blacks protested against their exclusion from the bastions of television, forcing doors to open, partially. In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, black pressure achieved some significant breakthroughs in television, including the creation of the Black Journal series on WNET. Bourne notes that "the life of Black Journal was closely allied to the Black movement that gave birth to it."  A number of black writers, producers and reporters were hired for the series. They produced programs that explored black life and focused on issues of concern to primarily black audiences, but also to white audiences. But whites continued to control the editorial supervision of the series until the black staff went out on strike in protest. Their action led to the appointment of William Greaves as executive producer, Lou Potter as executive editor and Madeline Anderson as the staff's first black woman producer.

In the early 1970s, funding for Black Journal, already drastically cut back, eventually ran out, and killed the series. But Bourne and other black filmmakers, including Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize), continued to produce programming about black subjects and expose racism.

But even at the height of the social struggles of the '60s, many documentary filmmakers concerned themselves with other issues. While Al Maysles expresses some regret about not making films that dealt with social issues more directly, he also felt that films like Salesman (1969) were, in their way, "a critic of the system." Salesman followed the progress of a team of Bible salesmen, as one of them slowly slides into the abyss of failure. Through Paul and his colleagues, Al and David Maysles exposed the hypocrisy of the whole apparatus of selling a product to customers who often neither could afford nor needed the product.

Frederick Wiseman, who produced Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1969) in this period, focused on the repressive mechanisms of institutions. In High School, Wiseman revealed the authoritarian nature of a middle-class white school, or more accurately, allowed it to reveal itself. The film drew a chilling portrait of how the school regimented the lives of its students and stifled their imagination with mechanical (and often silly) teaching.

The experiences of these filmmakers continued to inform the passions and the sensibilities of dozens of documentarians of the next decade. They included Robert Richter, whose documentaries revealed how corporations and the federal government destroyed the environment; Barbara Kopple, whose master work Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) revealed the exploitation and oppression of coal miners; and Pamela Yates, who learned Spanish and, with Peter Kinoy and Tom Sigel, went on to expose the Nixon Administration's support of dictatorships and overthrow of peoples' movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

At the same time, some filmmakers explored alternate forms of media using newly developed 1/2-inch video equipment. George Stoney encouraged aspiring filmmakers to record the social struggles in local issues for public-access television. Jon Alpert and Keiki Tsuno of New York's Downtown Community Center (DCTV) began to train high school students to look at their own lives and the institutions that impacted upon them.

With the advent of digital technology, the expansion of cable television and the potentialitiesof the Web, the potential for another quantum leap in progressive filmmaking continues. The flow of filmmaking that began in the 1930s, and became a river in the 1960s, now has the potential to become a flood. But the core issue is not one of technology but of motivation. As Hurwitz once remarked, referring to the filmmakers from the 1930s, "The question we asked ourselves was, ‘Do you want to accept the present situation or do you want to do something about it?'"


Richard Wormser has written, produced and directed over 100 programs for television, educational institutions and government. He was the originator, series producer and co-director/writer of the award-winning PBS series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (2002) the story of the African-American struggle for freedom during the era of segregation, 1880-1954.