Film Review: Rebels with a Cause

This review appeared in the February 2001 issue of Z Magazine

Rebels with a Cause: a documentary on SDS

By Max Elbaum, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez

Get together 28 articulate, socially committed veterans of the largest radical student organization of the 1960s. Get them to talk about their experience in that tumultuous decade’s battles for social justice. Remind people of the brutalities of the Vietnam War and naked Jim-Crow racism. Do it all with a passion for social justice combined with solid film technique. Manage those things—as does Helen Garvy in Rebels with a Cause—and you can make an engaging, often moving film about the value of fighting for a better world and defying established authority, as well as showing how individuals can act to make a difference.

But keep things on the level of values, social commitment, and fascinating individuals. Avoid the tough questions. In particular, gloss over the outpouring of strategic and ideological debate that characterized the late 1960s. You end up with a piece that offers only a truncated picture of what happens when liberal-minded activists become radicalized, that offers little in the way of strategic or intellectual lessons.

Rebels doesn’t address questions being asked by those most interested in the 1960s, the new generation of activists who are battling globalization, prisons vs. schools, the death penalty, sweatshops, sexism, and white supremacy. The film is useful and positive in that it beats back today’s demonization of the 1960s. But we need more than that.

Rebels tells the story of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Most of the film consists of individual veterans recounting their experiences on camera. Context is provided by documentary footage with voice-over narration showing battles of the 1960s: civil rights protesters attacked by Birmingham police water-cannon, Stop the Draft Week in 1967 in Oakland, and the 1967 antiwar Pentagon March. (The absence of student and youth revolts all over the world, particularly in France and México, is inexplicable.)

The film begins with the Civil Rights movement and highlights its influence on the birth and development of SDS. From that movement SDS drew its initial vision of “participatory democracy,” meaning a society or social grouping in which individuals are involved in making the decisions that affect their lives. The impact of escalating war in Vietnam appropriately dominates the narrative for the 1965-1968 period of SDS.

There is a reasonably serious effort to deal with Black Power and its impact on developing a multiracial organization. But the actual character of SDS as an overwhelmingly white organization is never explicitly addressed. Of the 28 interviewees, two are African American and one Latino; this accurately reflects SDS’s composition so it was a reasonable selection. However, the larger movement of the 1960s was not just more multiracial; in many cases it was led by people of color. This point is never adequately explored.

In general, the film’s structure of going back and forth between SDS specifics and the broader contours of 1960’s movements leaves a certain unclarity. While acknowledging the foundation stone of the Civil Rights movement, the film sometimes gives SDS too much credit for actions that had various sponsors. Even within the strictly SDS framework, the film gives superficial attention to the effects of the women’s liberation movement on SDS.

Probably it is asking too much for a two-hour film to fill all those gaps. But a fundamental political problem remains: the film’s final section, its treatment of the post- 1968 period. That pivotal year began with the Vietnamese Tet offensive that brought witness to the lie of U.S. triumphalism; saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and avowed antiwar presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy; the police riot at Chicago’s Democratic convention; the work- er-student alliance that nearly toppled the French government; the Columbia University and Mexican student revolt; and the election of Richard Nixon.

That was the year when profound radicalization occurred. Thousands of activists abandoned the idea of reforming the system and began discussing the nature of capitalism, the ideas of Marxism, the role of the working class in social change, the links between racism and capitalism/imperialism, and the relationship of male supremacy and (in 1969) homophobia to capitalism, imperialism, and militarism. That was also the period when discussion increased about the repression of women and gays within radical movements.

In 1968 and 1969, still more North American self-determination movements exploded—Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American. Radical projects, such as the Venceremos Brigade and the National Congress on Latin America (NACLA) were established by SDS activists and survive to the present (unlike SDS as an organization). Marxist parties or groups and new magazines like Radical America were initiated, largely by former SDS members.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the key time for the film to broaden its brush and capture the period in all its complexity, explaining what happened to SDS in that context. But exactly at that point the film narrows to the issue of the Vietnam war; the only political debate alluded to is about violence and how or whether to employ it. The words “capitalism” and “imperialism” are never mentioned; Marxism is mentioned only twice and only in reference to SDS being infiltrated by Marxist Leninist groups, “as it was similarly infiltrated by the FBI.”

The only SDS faction discussed is the Weathermen, which turned to bombing and armed propaganda. Even with this focus on those who went underground, there is no mention of the SDS figures who joined the Black Liberation Army and are now political prisoners: Kathy Boudin, Dave Gilbert, Linda Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and Marilyn Buck. We never learn at all about the outlook or practical work of the thousands of SDS members who neither turned to small-group armed actions or dropped out of politics—the ones who threw themselves into community and workplace organizing, built the 1970s international solidarity movements, and played leading roles in the multi-front resistance to the 1970s rise of the New Right.

Sadly, this failure to adequately analyze the post-1968 period is a common affliction in treatments of the 1960s. It’s the rock on which the documentaries Berkeley in the Sixties and Making Sense of the Sixties also crashed. All these films take the easy road. The early 1960s is a deceptively easy and inspirational story to tell, and that is the road the films take. So there were hundreds of middle-class white people dedicated to peace and equality battling arch reactionaries and liars. Good guys and bad guys were clear, with the good guys having the moral high ground and remaining untouched by difficult matters of ideology.

But as of 1968 (if not earlier) that vision was no longer sufficient. SDS couldn’t just say that activists were betrayed by a government that didn’t live up to its democratic ideals; in reality the entire origin story of U.S. democracy was a lie. At the same time, developments in movements of peoples of color had made organizing against racism more complex for white activists. Unfortunately, these films do not deal with those challenges.

In the case of Rebels with a Cause that limited perspective is linked to a generational one. The interviewees and director Garvy all joined SDS before 1967, most of them in the early 1960s. No SDS member whose main experience was the late 1960s appears on screen. Surely the 1968 generation would have offered a different view. So the principal message of Rebels with a Cause remains “we were the good guys, we acted to save the soul of America; we went a little nuts at the end, but have come back to our senses and as older folks look back at that period fondly and are still doing what we can to advance the cause of justice.”

The radical left in general has not yet developed or united around an in-depth evaluation of that difficult post-1968 period. Yet probing that period is essential to learning lessons for rebuilding a radical, multiracial, anti- capitalist, anti-imperialist left. Failing to do so surrenders the field to a sanitized, liberal evaluation of the crucial 1960s.

A new generation is struggling with how to combat capitalist globalization, the links between the prison-industrial complex and corporate power, the interconnections between class, race, gender and sexuality. It is also struggling with internal weaknesses and organizational questions, from sexism to sectarianism.

Pa’lante, Siempre, Pa’lante is a model documentary concerning the Young Lords Party, which spearheaded the early 1970s Puerto Rican radical youth movement (SDS leader Juan Gonzales, who also appears in Rebels, was a founder of the Young Lords). That film sacrifices nothing in terms of the spirit, flavor, the moral high ground, and the drama of the movement, but it delves into strategic and ideological questions that the Young Lords confronted. By doing so, it sets an example of courageously tackling questions that confront organizers and activists—whether 1960’s veterans or younger folks today. Z

Max Elbaum, former member of SDS and activist today, is the author of Revolution in the Air, a history of the late-1960’s radical movements (forthcoming from Verso); Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, a leading figure in the women’s liberation movement and author of Red Dirt and a forthcoming 1960’s memoir, Outlaw Woman, teaches Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University Hayward; Elizabeth Martinez, a Z columnist who has published six books on social movements, worked on SNCC staff and in the Chicano liberation movement in the 1960s; she now heads the Institute for MultiRacial Justice.