Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This 1990 documentary is an excellent, accurate and hugely entertaining record of the years of 'campus
activism' and anti-war protest at The University of California at Berkeley, where a simple Free
Speech movement in 1964 escalated
into a force that grew to inspire protests across America and the rest of the world. Using
reflective and sometimes confessional first-person interviews with the actual activists of the time,
Berkeley in the Sixties cuts through all the hype and propaganda (from both sides of the
issue) to fashion a portrait of idealism coming face to face with the repressive powers of the
University and the State.
Free Speech and Civil Rights activism in 1964 results in student organizations being
banned and the suspension of the right to discuss non-campus subjects at on-campus rallies. With
each victory against the stubborn University of California, the activists of win more
support and influence. Eventually, the resistance they help inspire does make a difference in the ability
of the Government to
prosecute its war in Vietnam. But their own idealism and naivete does them in: the press reports
them only as dirty instigators, while the hippies drop out entirely, and the Black Panthers aggravate
the movement with confrontation politics. One of the activists now freely admits that his belief then in
open revolution, was neither
possible nor even indicated.
Berkeley in the Sixties is a time capsule of a different era - the
'activists' of pre-hippie 1964 look as if they walked off the set of Ozzie and Harriet. But
they argue their cases with an impassioned and elevated oratory that makes their opponents look
like fools selling the status quo with a constant line of inflexible bigotry.
How all that honest idealism changed, this docu shows, comes basically from the fact that authority structures
don't operate with Jeffersonian purity. The interviewees, all of whom are articulate, lucid and
describe themselves as the children of well-to-do America, who actually believed that they could
make a difference, as President Kennedy had said, and change society for the better.
The early flush of success, in such clear cut-sounding matters as holding demonstrations to force San
Francisco hotels to hire blacks, didn't last long. The real villains are the Regents of the University
of California, who autocratically suppress the students as one would a drunken rabble. Soon the press is
typing the protesters as radicals and even communists. When Ronald Reagan ran for
office, the Berkeley activists offered him a local focus for his party's main success strategy -
uniting the the voting base with alarmist distortions.
It's very enlightening to find the activists, now in their middle to late forties, (in 1990)
realizing that the hostility turned their energies away from useful demonstrations to blind
opposition. Some believed that their cause would ignite a revolution that could bring
about a better America. This is what makes Berkeley in the Sixties the useful and thoughtful
document that it is - it demonstrates that the idealism could never stay pure in
the face of such entrenched and ruthless opposition. One activist, now in a business suit, says he
knew the movement was doomed when their protests turned into riots. When the crowds were seen destroying
private property, the public ignored their causes and cheer the police. The best revolution, as always,
is through the electoral process. Where were the activists' political candidates for local office?
In the end, once Reagan's police had formulated good counter-strategies, the activist struggle was
lost. A late-60s rally is boxed in by police cordons while tear gas is dropped from helicopters. One
of the most touching remarks is made by one activist woman, when she realizes that the army is
making war on them, with the public's blessing. From then on it was lame top-40 protest songs
and overt repression - and brute force, as with Kent State.
Berkeley in the Sixties is superior entertainment, structured to take advantage of great
newsfilm and kinescopes showing how the University campaigned to 'marginalize' the efforts of
campus activists. Ronald Reagan is on hand with his paternalistic hate-mongering, forever insisting
that Evil subversives are behind it all, loudly intimidating anyone who dares question
the rightness of his use of force. There's plenty of music too, from impromptu campus songs to
Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, to Black Panther chants (Off the Pig!). There's also the usual emotional rock
anthems of the period. But mostly, the appeal here is in the freshness
and enthusiasm (still) of the activists who, at least initially, just wanted to make democracy work as
it was intended. We have a right to demonstrate now, even for unpopular causes, that these people
had to fight for.
First Run Features' DVD of Berkeley in the Sixties is a very good-looking disc that brings
together a lot of diverse newsfilm and makes it all work. The sound is exceptionally
clear, aided greatly by the verbal talents of the interviewees, who all come off as great Americans.
A fat gallery of extras include some deleted scenes, trailers, a photo section, and a menu choice
called Archival Gems, which consists of some raw newsfilm that didn't make the cut. One amazing
60 second clip shows actor Robert Mitchum's response when asked his opinion of Vietnam: "If they
won't listen to reason over there, just kill 'em. Nuke 'em all." You won't believe it until you
see and hear it for yourself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Berkeley in the Sixties rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, photos, deleted scenes, newsclip outs.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 21, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson