Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

“What you do is you go to Berkeley and you riot.”

The excellent documentary Berkeley in the Sixties explores how the formally quiet, peaceful Berkeley campus transformed into a centre for militant student activity. The film charts the political development on the Berkeley campus and how Berkeley activism meshed with the times. Many people have the impression that Berkeley students became politically active thanks to Vietnam, but the documentary debunks that idea. Chronicling various aspects of Berkeley student activism, director Mark Kitchell examines the highlights of the times–the Free Speech Movement on campus, the Black Panthers and Vietnam War protests.

The documentary includes clips from activists, now middle-aged, some who arrived at Berkeley as seasoned civil rights activists. Checking nostalgia wisely at the door, some activists recall the highlights of the times; some note the feeling that revolution was imminent while others discuss their mistakes. One of the most interesting points explaining the combustible situation on the Berkeley campus made by an interviewee is that “the young, privileged affluent children of the culture began to see themselves as an oppressed class.” There’s some great footage from the times, and some memorable quotes.

Max Rafferty Superintendent of Instruction refers to the student protestors as “a few of these rather bearded, unwashed characters with sandals and long hair who normally would be regarded and tolerated as a sort of lunatic fringe which you put up with but you don’t necessarily encourage. In effect the campus has been turned over to these characters.”

Particularly interesting is the manner in which the documentary establishes that students were involved in political activities off campus, but that punishments were enacted by campus administration that had ramifications for the students on campus. The film includes footage on Jack Weinberg’s arrest (students swarmed the police car with Weinberg inside, and the police car was unable to move for 32 hours), and protests at Sproul Hall in December 1964.

The film’s phenomenal footage includes protests, students hauled off by police and busloads of recruits about to be shipped off to Vietnam, and one interviewee recalls her distress at the sight of these young men–many of whom would not return.

By far my favourite parts include Ronald Reagan wagging his index finger at a roomful of Berkeley faculty, and there’s also one scene where he reads a letter that describes the supposedly scandalous goings-on amongst the youth of America (imagine that). It’s interesting to note that Reagan’s supposedly scandalous letter–packed with salacious details–tries to highlight the sexual hanky-panky afoot while ignoring the serious, political side of the student movement, and of course, it was the student radicalism that rankled the most.

This cohesive documentary charts exactly what actions sparked events: the organization of SLATE, the commie scare, the Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements, and the Stop The Draft Week. These were some amazing times, and the documentary captures the sense of excitement, energy, and the “massive collapse of campus authority.”

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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