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Berkeley in the Sixties

Berkeley in the Sixties
First Run Features
1990 / Color and b&w / 1:37 flat / 117 min. / Street Date November 12, 2002 / $29.95
Cinematography Stephen Lighthill
Film Editor Veronica Selver
Original Music Jimi Hendrix, The Band, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez
Written and Directed by Mark Kitchell

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 self-critical, 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, photos, deleted scenes, newsclip outs.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 21, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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