Re-enactment screenshot of the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI planning their Media, PA burglary.
What to Watch

Nine Movies about American Radicals

May 14, 2015 by Independent Lens in Lists

By Noel Murray

There’s something deeply and inherently provocative in movies that tell stories about open rebellion against the United States government, because they force us to think harder about what it really means to be a good citizen. Are radicals traitors, heroes, or something in-between? Can we even judge them until enough time has passed to know whether they were right or wrong? After all, if the American Revolution had gone another way, the tales we tell about Paul Revere and George Washington would have a decidedly different spin.

Johanna Hamilton’s documentary 1971 (airing on PBS this Monday, May 18 — check local listings) is about an activist group that once undercut the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country by raiding a Pennsylvania FBI office, and then disseminating the embarrassing classified files they found there. Though the title refers to the year the robbery took place, the film’s clear message is that the issues of government spying and secrecy — and whether citizens have the right to force accountability by any means necessary — are as relevant and controversial now as they were 44 years ago.

Like 1971, the nine fiction and nonfiction features below also deal with people and organizations who’ve defied the status quo — sometimes questionably, and sometimes in ways that today seem more noble than dangerous.

You Say You Want a Revolution

Chicago 10 (2007): When a group of high-profile youth organizers were accused of inciting the masses to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the resulting trial became a national referendum on hippies, the protest movement, and systemic abuses by “the establishment.” Brett Morgen’s documentary about “the Chicago 8” (and their two attorneys) uses animation to bring to life old audio recordings and dramatic readings of courtroom transcripts. It’s a stylistic choice meant to evoke the “cartoonish” nature of the legal proceedings. But the animation also gives the over-familiar late 1960s imagery a new vibrancy. Morgen made Chicago 10 at the height of a new wave of demonstrations against the Bush administration and the Iraq War — at a time when some protesters were being cordoned off in “free speech zones” — and he wanted to show how the same battles keep getting fought, to allow the American people to exercise their rights to assemble and to speak their minds.

The Weather Underground (2002): Some 1960s activists were aggressive but mostly harmless, more interested in political theater than in the actual violent overthrow of the government. The Weather Underground, though, were literal bomb-throwers, who are still answering for their setting off a series of explosions in federal buildings and banks over a period of several years. Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary The Weather Underground catches up with the group’s members in the early 2000s, finding a few of them apologetic and others still defiant, even as they admit that they’d never try anything so dangerous again to make a political point. The film is a sensitive, poignant consideration of how even angry young men and women grow up, settle down, and then find themselves in the uneasy position of trying to protect what they once pledged to destroy.

Running on Empty (1988): Though it was made 14 years earlier, the muted, tearjerking melodrama Running on Empty plays like a sequel to The Weather Underground. River Phoenix stars as Danny Pope, the teenaged son of two counterculture fugitives (played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti), who’ve been moving their kids around the country and changing their identities ever since one of their violent protests took a tragic turn. The movie (directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal) catches the family at a moment of truth, realizing it would be a betrayal of their ideals if they didn’t allow Danny to live his own life, no longer on the run. Running on Empty humanizes the people behind the rebellion of the 1960s, showing them as mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and husbands and wives, making the same kinds of sacrifices and compromises that everyone does.

From Running on Empty (Christine Lahti, River Phoenix)
From Running on Empty (Christine Lahti, River Phoenix)

Underclass Wars

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011): Who would’ve guessed that some of the best reporting on America’s black liberation movement would be conducted by foreign journalists? Some of the highlights of Swedish TV’s coverage of African American activists like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton were compiled by filmmaker Göran Olsson into the collage-doc The Black Power Mixtape, complete with new voice-over commentary from some of the people who tried to make a difference in the black community in the early 1970s. Between the at times shocking footage, including of Black Panthers teaching schoolkids to sing “Pick up a gun and put the pigs on the run,” The Black Power Mixtape makes important points about how marginalized cultures are sometimes forced to govern and protect themselves, even if that makes the powers-that-be uncomfortable.

When The Black Power Mixtape aired on Independent Lens, Angela Davis spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about the experience of watching her younger self:

Let the Fire Burn (2013): A kind of corollary to The Black Power Mixtape, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn documents what happened to the remnants of Philadelphia-based black liberation group MOVE after public opinion shifted and they started being seen as a problem to be solved. Effectively bombed out of their communal home by the police, MOVE discovered that a decade of advocating separatism had put them on the wrong side of every government organization that might’ve stood up for them. There are no easy answers in Let the Fire Burn, which uses riveting archival footage to consider how hard it is to live freely in a society that considers the urban poor to be inherently undesirable.

In the clip below, a surviving member of MOVE gets incensed at what she considers the ignorant questions of a government inquiry:

Incident at Oglala (1992): An all-too-common story for 1960s activist groups — suspiciously common, in fact — sees them reaching a certain level of prominence and power and then being undercut by legal troubles, as government investigators uncover vaguely substantiated evidence of criminal activity. Michael Apted’s documentary Incident at Oglala (narrated by Robert Redford) looks into the case of the American Indian Movement’s Leonard Peltier, accused of being involved with the killing of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Even more than Peltier’s story, Incident at Oglala is about the external pressures and internal conflicts that hamstrung Native American activists in the 1970s every time they seemed to be getting closer to their goal of genuine autonomy and social representation.

From Incident at Oglala
From Incident at Oglala

Domestic Terror

Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997): Anyone who watches films like Chicago 10, Let the Fire Burn, and Incident at Oglala and bristles at the government’s treatment of left-leaning progressives should see William Gazecki’s Waco: The Rules of Engagement for a different angle on the same story. This documentary argues that what the FBI and ATF did to gun-hoarding Christian cult leader David Koresh at his Branch Davidian headquarters in Texas was just as bad as what happened to MOVE and other organizations in direct conflict with the government. Viewers may or may not be convinced by the film’s forensic evidence, which attempts to debunk the official record of how and why Koresh’s compound caught fire. But either way, The Rules of Engagement raises troubling questions about whether the authorities have the right to hound any fringe group out of existence.

Night Moves (2013): On the surface, writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves is a suspense film about extreme environmentalists (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam. But the movie isn’t exactly a “thriller.” Reichardt is more interested in quietly exploring the hidden, not entirely compatible motivations of her antiheroes — not all of whom would put “saving the world” at the top of their internal to-do lists. More than just a study of well-meaning domestic terrorists, Night Moves is about the simple interpersonal conflicts that keep any society from running smoothly.

In this interview, Eisenberg talks about the film as a character piece about three people whose paranoia keeps them from trusting each other.

The East (2013): Similar to Night Moves, The East looks at fiercely committed anti-corporate/anti-globalization saboteurs, though writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-producer-star Brit Marling come at their premise from the opposite side, with Marling playing an undercover operative who infiltrates the radicals. The more time she spends with the collective, the more she begins to agree with what their leader (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is saying, and the more she questions where her loyalties should lie. Like a lot of the films on this list, The East challenges the audience to confront their preconceptions about the established order, getting them to affirm what they really believe to be right and wrong, rather than quietly conforming to the norm.

Noel Murray is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The DissolveThe A.V. ClubThe Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone. He lives in Arkansas with his wife, two children, and a TV that is never off.

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