Sixties Political Films: An Annotated Bibliography
Eric Roberts and Lauren Rusk
This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1993 by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
For several years, my partner Lauren Rusk and I have hosted a biweekly series of "political films" (rather loosely defined) that attracts between 20 and 25 people each week. Because we have found that these evenings are a good way to get people together and that they serve to some extent as a nucleus for the local progressive community, we thought it might be useful to share our experience with friends and comrades who would like to host similar gatherings elsewhere.
The attached list of films represents our own collection, which we have acquired since the film series began. Most of the films included here can be obtained at decent video rental stores, but others are not widely available. For hard-to-find videos, there are a couple of sources worth considering. Probably the best is Facets Multimedia in Chicago which has an enormous inventory available, both for rental and purchase:
I have also gotten quite a few items from The Video Project in Oakland:
The Video Project
Finally, if you are interested in progressive films, I strongly recommend subscribing to the quarterly film journal Cineaste, which has excellent reviews and articles covering both mainstream and independent films from a progressive viewpoint:
You can get in touch with me at:
I hope that you enjoy this list of films and the attached schedule from our series, and hope that it helps as a resource for organizing. And please let me know if there are films that you think are wonderful that I don't have on my list.
AGAINST THE CURRENT, Dmitri Delov, The Glasnost Film Festival, 1988, 0:27. "This is a film about ecological crime. Despite being labeled extremists, the residents of Kirishi protest a major synthetic protein plant. `We couldn't breathe, we coughed, we buried our children ... but we couldn't put up with it anymore,' a young woman shouts indignantly at a rally.
ALICE'S RESTAURANT, Arthur Penn, 1969, 1:51. At one level, this is the story told by Arlo Guthrie's song, with the half-a-ton of garbage, the twenty-seven 8x10 colored glossy photographs, and the draft induction center where you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected. But the film is much more than the song, and, in total, has a much more depressing tone as it looks at the failure of the 1960's vision.
ALL GOD'S DANGERS, Jennifer and Michael Hadley, 1990. A public television rendition of a one-man show in which Cleavon Little recounts the life history of Ned Cobb, a black sharecropper who lived from 1885-1973.
APPEARING NITELY, Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, 1992, 1:10. Appearing Nightly is the film version of Lily Tomlin's one-woman Broadway show of the same name, for which Tomlin received a Tony award. As in most of her other plays, Tomlin switches almost instantaneously between various characters, somehow managing to create the impression of a well-populated stage.
ATTICA, Marvin Chomsky, 1980, 1:35. A documentary of the uprising at Attica prison in September 1971 and of the violence used by state authorities to put it down. Based on A Time to Die by Tom Wicker.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, John Korti, 1973, 1:46. Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, this film traces black history in America from the Civil War to the 1960s as seen through the eyes of a 110-year-old ex-slave, brilliantly portrayed by Cicely Tyson.
Festival, 1987, 0:19. "The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railroad in Siberia is the longest monument to the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. Behind the marches and songs praising the project, equipment was breaking down, lives were broken, and souls became calloused.
BEDTIME FOR BONZO, Frederick de Cordova, 1951, 1:23. The cult classic with Ronald Reagan consistently upstaged by a chimpanzee. In many ways, this film is surprising. Even on its own merit, the film is nowhere near as bad as it might be. And, when you think about some of the lines that come from Reagan's character, it becomes downright hilarious.
BERKELEY IN THE SIXTIES, Mark Kitchell, 1988, 1:57. Covers the history of radical activity in Berkeley, from the HUAC demonstrations in 1960 to People's Park in 1969, with major segments on the Free Speech Movement, the campaign to shut down the Oakland Induction Center, and the Black Panthers. The film combines archival footage with recent interviews of some of the participants, including Jack Weinberg, Frank Bardacke, Susan Griffin, and Bobby Seale. My collection also includes the rough cut for part III of the film, which has considerably more footage about the influence of the counterculture and the struggle for People's Park.
THE BIG CHILL, Lawrence Kasdan, 1983, 1:45. The Big Chill is Hollywood's version of John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus 7 and follows a group of '60s college activists into the 1980s. The film has political problems, but the music and the spirit make this film quite attractive to this generation of college students.
BIOGRAPHY: CHRISTA MCAULIFFE, Arts and Entertainment Network, 1994, 1:30. This entry in the A&E Biography series, aired around the time of the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, profiles Christa McAuliffe, the teacher from New Hampshire who died in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The film lays much of the blame for the disaster on NASA's decision to launch in cold weather, but does not dig deeper into the issue of why the launch was allowed to proceed or mention the warnings from Morton Thiokol engineers like Rojer Bosjoli, which were ignored by NASA. This video is in my collection primarily because the musical score was composed by a high-school classmate, Catherine Stornetta.
BLACK PANTHERS: HUEY NEWTON, Black Panther Newsreel, 1968, 0:53. Filmed mostly at a birthday rally for imprisoned Black Panther Party chairman Huey P. Newton, this film includes speeches by Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Ron Dellums, and Bob Avakian.
BLACK SQUARE, Joseph Pasternak, The Glasnost Film Festival, 1988, 0:56. "Black Square tells the story of Russia's artistic avant-garde from the 1950s to the 1970s, when artists' works could be smashed by a bulldozer, flooded with acid, or covered with concrete. The film is a cinematic appreciation of works only recently allowed to be exhibited and of the artists that created them."
THE CHANGER: A RECORD OF THE TIMES, Frances Reid and Judy Dlugacz, Olivia Records, 1991. This film chronicles the history of the women's music revival from its beginnings in the early 1970s into the 1990s. By combining interviews and performances with such artists as Chris Williamson, Meg Christian, Margie Adam, Holly Near, Vicki Randle, June Millington, and Bonnie Raitt, the film captures well the excitement of the early years and how that mood has evolved over time.
CHERNOBYL: CHRONICLE OF DIFFICULT WEEKS, Valdamir Shevchenko, The Glasnost Film Festival, 1986, 0:54. "Shevchenko's film crew was the first in the disaster zone following the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. They shot continuously for more than three months. Portions of the film are exposed with white blotches -- a radiation leakage."
THE CHINA SYNDROME, James Bridges, 1978, 2:03. A film about a near meltdown at a nuclear power plant that eerily foreshadowed the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Jane Fonda stars as a TV reporter who is present at the reactor when the accident occurs.
THE COLOR PURPLE, Steven Spielberg, 1985, 2:34. Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the story of a black woman in the rural south, portrayed brilliantly by Whoopi Goldberg, who finds in her friendship with other women the strength to escape the oppression she has endured from her father and husband.
CSPP: NII PERSPECTIVES, Computer Systems Policy Project, 1983, 0:09. The Computer Systems Policy Project is an organization formed by the largest computer hardware manufacturers to promote the interests of the computing industry in Washington. This short video outlines CPSR's principles and recommendations for action with respect to the National Information Infrastructure.
COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT, Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1989, 1:19. Common Threads traces the lives of five individuals whose lives are memorialized in the Names Project quilt. Because the film lets us into the lives of individual people with AIDS and their communities, we come to know them in a way that makes their loss an intensely personal one. This is an extraordinarily moving film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1989.
COMPUTERS IN CONTEXT, California Newsreel, 1987, 0:35. This video reviews the approach taken in Scandinavia to computers in the workplace, concentrating on the needs of the workers in three different application areas: banking, newspaper graphic design, and jet aircraft maintenance.
CONSPIRACY, Jeremy Kagan, HBO, 1987, 1:58. In documenting the trial of the Chicago 8, Conspiracy combines a dramatization of the courtroom testimony with footage from Vietnam and Chicago as well as with modern interviews of the defendants. The result, according to the review in the Guardian is a "superior film" that "brilliantly dramatizes the key cultural and political ideas."
COVERUP, Barbara Trent, Gary Meyer, and David Kasper, 1988, 1:12. Coverup investigates those aspects of the Iran-contra scandal that never made it into the public eye and tells "a tangled tale of politics, drugs, hostages, weapons, assassinations, covert operations, and the ultimate plan to suspend the constitution of the United States."
CUBA VA, Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 1993. Subtitled "The Challenge of the Next Generation," this film looks at the future of the Cuban revolution from the perspective of young people born after the fall of the Battista government in 1959.
THE DAY AFTER TRINITY, Jon Else, 1981, 1:28. On July 16, 1945, with the successful "Trinity" test in the deserts of New Mexico, mankind entered the nuclear age. The documentary film The Day after Trinity examines the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the principal architect of the first atomic bomb. The film begins with the early history of the Los Alamos project and traces its development through the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, as Oppenheimer came to oppose further development of the hydrogen bomb, the film turns to the McCarthy hearings and the public humiliation of Oppenheimer in 1954. The Day after Trinity was nominated for the "Best Documentary" Academy Award in 1981.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Robert Wise, 1951, 1:32. The Day the Earth Stood Still is best remembered as one of the classic science-fiction movies of the 1950s, and its appearance here in a catalogue of political films may seem a little out of place. At the same time, the story argues very strongly for an end to the insanity of international conflict just as the Cold War was beginning its dominance over world events.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY, Peter Weir, 1989, 2:04. In this film, Robin Williams takes the role of a young, unorthodox teacher of English who returns to his preparatory school driven by the desire to instill in his students a love for poetry and intellectual freedom. While the political position of the film is understated, I believe that its setting at the end of the 1950s is intended to presage the generational rebellion that these students and their contemporaries would launch in the decade to come.
DEADLY DECEPTION, Debra Chasnoff, INFACT, 1991, 0:29. This film exposes both the environmental damage caused by the General Electric Company's work on nuclear weapons and the long- standing attempts by the company to cover up those problems. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1991.
DESTINATION NICARAGUA, Barbara Trent and David Kasper, 1985, 0:58. "This award-winning documentary follows some of the more that 100,000 U.S. citizens who have traveled to Nicaragua since the Sandinista revolution. It is the story of average people who embark on an extraordinary journey of conscience, moved by an intense desire to understand Nicaragua and the impact of U.S. foreign policy on its citizens. It offers viewers the opportunity to witness the issues, the people, and the war zones of Nicaragua through the eyes of U.S. citizens." [from the AFSC Audiovisual Library catalog]
DIALOGUES, Nikolai Obukhovich, The Glasnost Film Festival, 1987, 0:29. "A bacchanal of rock-jazz music erupts in an abandoned Leningrad palace. Collective singing, dancing, and playing makes this group of people a community and an ensemble, not just a crowd."
DISCOVER RUSSIA, National Geographic Society, 1990, 0:30. Produced in a year when the Soviet Union was being swept by such changes that the film was obsolete when it appeared, Discover Russia does have excellent footage of the sights of Russia, including Moscow, Leningrad, and the surrounding countryside.
THE DOLLMAKER, Daniel Petrie, 1984, 2:20. Based on the book by Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker tells the story of a woman from the hills of Kentucky who moves with her family to the industrial Midwest and its empty promise of a better life. Jane Fonda won an Emmy award for this television adaptation and does a wonderful job showing both the enormous strength and human vulnerability that are part of this woman's character.
DOMINOES, John Lawrence Re' and Barry Brown, 1988. The directors describe Dominoes as an "impressionistic rock video [which] documents the unfolding events and movements that collectively shaped that era while tracking the development of the music most dramatically associated with those movements."
A DOONESBURY SPECIAL, John and Faith Hubley and Garry Trudeau, 1978, 0:27. Animated short featuring the residents of the Walden Puddle commune as they look back on the way things have changed. Winner of the Special Jury Award at the Cannes International Film Festival of 1978.
DRIVING MISS DAISY, Bruce Beresford, 1989, 1:39. One of the smash hits of 1989, Driving Miss Daisy follows the relationship that develops between an elderly Jewish woman in Atlanta and her black chauffeur -- brought vividly to life through outstanding performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
DSA 1993 CONVENTION HIGHLIGHTS, Democratic Socialists of America, 1991. This video begins with the "Breaking Bread" outreach event in South Central Los Angeles with speeches by Cornel West, Joe Hicks, Gloria Romero, BongHwan Kim, and Jan Breidenback and also includes the dinner talks honoring women in politics.
EARLY ON SUNDAY, Murat Mamedov, The Glasnost Film Festival, 1988, 0:16. "Early on Sunday is a simple, endearing film. On a Sunday morning in winter several old village women go to the forest to gather wood. Their unpretentious observations evoke bursts of laughter, feelings of compassion, and an immense respect for the dignity and patience of these women."
EL NORTE, Gregory Nava, 1983, 2:19. This film follows the odyssey of a young brother and sister fleeing Guatemala after their parents are killed by security forces. They make it to "El Norte," only to find that life there may be just as hard.
ERNESTINE: PEAK EXPERIENCES, Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, 1992, 0:15. This short video contains three clips of Lily Tomlin's character Ernestine: the monologue from the 1969 Laugh-In show that introduced the character, a Saturday Night Live satire about the phone company, and a parody of the movie Flashdance.
EYES ON THE PRIZE II, Henry Hampton, Blackside Inc., 1990. This eight-part follow-on to the original PBS documentary traces the later years of the civil-rights movement as it moved from nonviolent resistance to Black Power.
THE FABULOUS SIXTIES, Canadian Broadcasting Company, 1970. With narration by Peter Jennings before he moved south to the United States, this documentary consists of ten 45-minute segments, one for each year. The political activism of the decade is covered, but with quite a bit of emphasis on movie stars, current fads, and the like.
FAIL-SAFE, Sidney Lumet, 1964, 1:51. Based on the 1962 thriller by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, the film tracks what happens after a computer error launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
FALUDI AND IVINS, Mother Jones Magazine, 1992, 1:00. As a fundraising benefit, Mother Jones magazine sponsored a dialogue between two feminist writers: Susan Faludi, the author of the runaway bestseller Backlash, and Molly Ivins, a Texas-based essayist and columnist known for her extremely funny and insightful readings of the modern world.
FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY, Ronald Joffe, 1989, 2:06. The film traces the history of the Manhattan Project by focusing on the conflict between its military commander, General Leslie Groves, and its chief scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The chief weakness of the film is that the acting between the principals is not well-matched, and Paul Newman's portrayal of Groves in many ways overshadows Dwight Schultz's depiction of Oppenheimer. Even so, by concentrating on the dramatic tension between these individuals, this film does offer a somewhat different perspective on the history than The Day After Trinity, which is, on the whole, a much stronger film.
FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES, United Farm Workers, 1974. A documentary of the 1973 strike by farmworkers in California to win the right to choose their own union, despite harassment and violence by the growers.
THE FILE ON FATHER GUADALOUPE, BBC, 1987. In 1983, U.S. Jesuit priest Jim Carney disappeared in Honduras, presumably murdered by death squads because of his support for liberation theology. This documentary (based in part on the book To Be a Revolutionary) follows Jim's family as they search for information about what happened.
FIRES IN THE MIRROR, George Wolfe, PBS American Playhouse, 1993, 1:22. Stanford Professor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith conceived, wrote, and starred in this one-woman show about racial tension in Brooklyn's Crown Heights district after a young black child was killed by a Hasidic driver and the subsequent stabbing of a rabbinical student.
FIRST STRIKE: PORTRAIT OF AN ACTIVIST, Douglas Dibble, 1989. A powerful film about Katya Komisaruk, an anti-nuclear activist who, alone and unarmed, entered Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1987 and destroyed parts of the NAVSTAR computer system, which she regarded as part of the nerve center of the U.S. "first strike" capability. Much of the film concentrates on her trial, at which the judge disallowed all testimony about her motivation, making it impossible for Katya to offer a "defense of necessity" and to argue that her actions were required under the Nuremberg Charter. Katya is now serving a five year sentence in Federal prison.
THE FIVE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA, LIVE IN CONCERT, Adrian Carrizales, 1993, 1:10. Five Blind Boys of Alabama is a Black gospel singing group founded in the 1940s by students at a Southern college for the blind, three of whom are still singing with the group today. The energy that the singers put into their music, particularly as the spirit grows in the course of the concert, is astonishing. This film was taken from a live outdoor concert in Santa Monica in 1993.
FRIDA, Paul Leduc, 1984, 1:48. Of the several biographies that have been made of Mexican artist and revolutionary Frida Kahlo, Paul Leduc's film is one of the most highly acclaimed and won first-place honors at the Havana Film Festival in 1984. Using cinematography that mirrors Kahlo's own artistic style, Leduc blends passion, politics, and painting in a way that brings to life the beauty of the whole.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, Jon Avnet, 1991, 2:10. Although the movie has been criticized for playing down the lesbian relationship explicit in Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, the film version presents a quartet of such strong women's roles that you can feel nothing but uplifted by the experience. The performances by Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary Louise Parker -- both individual and ensemble -- are tremendous.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS: AN AMERICAN LIFE, William Greaves, 1968, 0:30. A fast-paced documentary of the life and times of abolitionist, writer, and editor Frederick Douglass, including dramatic reenactments of his meetings with Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln.