Part oral history, part amazingly complex philosophical doctrine, Rebels with a Cause is one of those rare talking heads documentary where the ideas discussed and the people doing the debating are so amazingly eloquent and exciting that they literally steal your breath away. There is no doubt that the 1960s, more so than any other decade, was a time of tremendous political passions and intense individual ideology. The fact that no other era since has seen such an organized and effective rise up in resistance to the government, either from colleges or grass roots movements, speaks volumes for the efforts and the individuals involved in the SDS movement. Filmmaker, and SDS member Helen Garvy, knows that the novelty of what her subjects are going to say, meshed with the importance of the work they accomplished, is far more engaging and electrifying than merely meandering over newsreel or archival footage. Certainly, some of the more profound and important images from the tumultuous times are presented, many featuring the now older faces in youthful defiance. But the real selling point, saving grace and significant insights come from the fine art of people telling their own, intimate story. From the cockeyed optimism of college-age students traveling to the racially divided South with dreams of ending segregation to the amazing organization of the first anti-Vietnam War demonstration, Rebels with a Cause is a primer on the importance of defiance in the wake of Establishment immobility.
What is most incredible about Rebels with a Cause is the sense of community and commonality of purpose that still penetrates the former members, many of whom have gone on to continue their social service in their adult lives and careers. Though they now work for divergent entities and occasionally clash with their once-important policies, every retired radical interviewed, from former organization presidents and foot soldiers to faculty advisors and hired guns instill the same sense of solidarity over one true fact: their time in SDS changed them forever. Call it social consciousness camp or extracurricular engagement, but the movement toward true democracy and effective governmental change was an education few of these fine individuals have forgotten. Many today could and would argue that the lack of significant issues (and a desire to address them if they existed) is what's keeping today's modern matriculators from rising up like those of 40 years ago. Without a benchmark event like Vietnam (Iraq, anyone?) or segregation to combat, problems such as sexual harassment or the exploration of diversity are far more important to those currently cruising through institutions of higher learning. But Rebels with a Cause argues that it's not the shortage of circumstances or lack of initiative that's hampering modern rebellion. Instead, it's a missing sense of social responsibility that keeps today's on campus battles focused on individual, not universal ideals.
Everyone here - and there are a good 20+ participants in the movement interviewed for this incredible documentary - has an amazing story or significant anecdote, from being forced out of town at gunpoint by a group of good old boys, to seeing a tank turret directly facing you while looking out an SDS office window. From the elaborate schemes and strategies that worked (sit-ins and protest marchers) to the occasionally half-baked brainstorms (suburban white kids teaching ghetto minorities how to better their lives) Rebels with a Cause highlights the resourcefulness, the commitment, and yes the naivetι of 1960s youth. Raised in the era of Eisenhower, when America seemed like a prosperous oasis of conservative entitlement, we begin to understand how their militancy was formed. Though not known as a hotbed of controversy, the sedate materialism of the 1950s provided the perfect teenage rebellion fodder. But instead of turning into delinquents, these kids channeled their brains and their bravura into attempting real social modification. Inspired by the election of John F. Kennedy and looking for ways to directly contradict their parents' penchant for apathy, SDS was an outgrowth of the comfort and conformity of the "I Like Ike" post-WWII years. And the rapid rise and growth of this organization speaks volumes to the scope of the unease.
Still, Rebels with a Cause points out the amount of integrity, and ingenuity, that resulted from said revolution. How members conspired and convoluted the system so that they had the ability to LEGALLY burn their draft cards in front of FBI agents and NEVER get arrested is just one example of how SDS worked. The slogans and iconography are equally gripping, examples as powerful and potent as any speech from a bully pulpit. From soundbites and conversations, we sense the development of a new philosophy, a real value system. Indeed, the crux of Rebels with a Cause is clear. Instead of using the later, more confrontational tactics of violent protest and lethal destruction to make their point, the students wanted to apply the rules and regulations of the Establishment against the monolithic entity, subverting and shifting the balance of power, minor point by minor point. Rebels with a Cause is filled to bursting with such eyewitness reports of life on the frontlines of the generation gap war and the coverage is magnificent. By simply allowing the participants the opportunity to reflect and explain their positions and their passions, we are instantly drawn into the time and place of these monumental events, and take a seat along side the members as they fight what would later be called the good fight.
Because of the limited scope of the film's narrative drive this is just the story of SDS, not a history of all the radical movements spawned by the 60s there are some gaps in our understanding. The Weather Underground and their aggressive, reactionary membership, The Weathermen, (a far more pro-active off shoot of SDS) are given a brief, brave mention. But this violence-based urban guerilla outfit is relegated to footnote status in this story. Also, the ultimate event in the history of the movement, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the subsequent riots and trial of the Chicago 7 is barely even mentioned. True, the issues are so complex (Mayor Daley's machine based politics controlled the Windy City with a near fascist iron fist) and the parameters so vast that no single documentary could cover it all. But because Rebels with a Cause does such a fantastic job of getting its points across in precise, prescient sequences, one wants the blanket of information to be spread wider, encompassing more of the major, mind-blowing realities of the events that shaped this amazingly dense decade.
But this does not undermine its impact. Rebels with a Cause should be mandatory viewing in every high school and college campus in the now ennui-filled United States. So satiated on instant gratification and convinced that any effort in contravention of the government will be seen as a useless, or better yet, dangerous enterprise, today's student is a sadly inert binge drinking pawn, playing their part in the malaise of America perfectly. What Students for a Democratic Society argues and successfully, it should be added is that the only way to win in a world where out of touch power-hungry titans rule your destiny is to ask them why they do. The question could be in the form of a pamphlet, a sit-in, a demonstration or a riot. Rebels with a Cause suggests that, no matter the means, asking the question is far more important than getting an answer. At an age where modern male and female students are more concerned about sex, partying and early retirement career arcs, these instigators believed it was important to confront and demand, to shake the foundations of society in order to see what truly controls our lives. There have been lots of interesting and inspiring films and documentaries about the socio-political crossroads that America faced in the 1960s, but very few have Rebels with a Cause's insight. And that is because very few have the access to the actual movers and shakers of that time. And when you see them, fresh faced and defiant, you immediately understand what made this decade so discordant. Today, everyone believes youth culture controls the climate of society. In the 1960s, it actually swayed the course of history. And SDS was there.