A New Documentary About Student Strikes Raises the Question: Is the "Right" Subject Ever Above Reproach?

TV Reviews Agents of Change
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A New Documentary About Student Strikes Raises the Question: Is the "Right" Subject Ever Above Reproach?

I am aware that if this were a documentary about a race-irrelevant subject it would not be particularly inflammatory for me to call it disappointing in its production values and almost irresponsibly one-sided: It would be criticism—something we expect from reviewers. But I am a white woman born after the incidents depicted in Agents of Change, one who is well aware that the agitations of primarily black students on college campuses (famously San Francisco State and Cornell) between roughly 1968 and 1972 were necessary, valid, and arose from systemic unfairness—and resulted in a better, if imperfect, emphasis on inclusion, the development of ethnic studies departments and the hiring and tenuring of more professors of color.

So, while it gives me no joy to say it, Agents of Change is disappointing in its production values—bad editing; scene-framing by way of rhymes cheesy enough to make my teenager hide her head with a pillow—and pretty damn one-sided. It doesn’t take a visionary to note that this was a tense, fraught moment to be a student of color on a historically white-dominant campus; most sane people would probably come together around the idea that change was needed. But the documentary congratulates agitators without a minute of airtime given to the complications that come with any such movement or its distillation into a documentary, much less those at SF State whose perceptions of the strike differed. In fact, here’s my big question, which the film doesn’t answer: “How could a responsible documentarian act like SF State and Cornell University were the same?” Because there’s no way they were.

SF State was (and remains) a campus dedicated to forward-thinking, tolerance-embracing, diversity-centered higher education. It had that reputation even over and above its more famous cousin across the Bay, UC Berkeley. Based on what I know about the history of SFSU (which isn’t expert-level, but isn’t nothing, either), I have a hard time imagining that the strike was necessary, and I really wanted the documentary to show me the tipping point that made it so. It never really happens. Given that the film celebrates the people who toppled the regime while noting that they had lots of advocates in the faculty and administration, I found myself wondering why these advocates didn’t assist students in a low-key sit-down with administrators to discuss the inclusion of a black studies curriculum and a commitment to tenure more professors of color. The strike is portrayed as an inevitable necessity, but I have no reason to believe it was, based on the footage provided. The Black Students’ Union and the Third World Liberation Front might have found an open door had they sought a non-confrontational way of petitioning the administration for change. Might have: I don’t know. The point is, the documentary does not explain why student groups at SF State decided that the strike, specifically, had become necessary—nor does it mention some of the movement’s less-noble moments, which included arson and assault. In fact, gathering a dissenting viewpoint or two might have helped to validate the filmmakers’ viewpoint: They throw in a couple of token chestnuts from then-Governor Ronald Reagan, but it would have been cool to hear from, for example, someone who felt the BSU’s actions were not honorably conducted, even if only to flesh out the documentary’s depiction of the atmosphere on campus at the time. The student strike and the events leading up to it were not simple. This film would like you to believe they were. David. Goliath. Period.

Many of the agitators—Danny Glover was one of them—who participated in these pivotal movements are still with us, around 70 years old; the interviews with those who agreed to speak on camera are in many cases illuminating. (There are a couple of tedious exceptions, but that’s always a documentary commentator risk: Just because you were there doesn’t make you overwhelmingly insightful or a good storyteller.) These people were fighting against something. I think it would have been a great idea to interview a couple of people who represented the thing they were fighting, some of the people whose presence on campus engendered the need for a one-day strike that ended up lasting five months and, while less damaging on the whole than some of the more violent protests that followed on other campuses, involved hundreds of arrests and city and state police apparently routinely busting heads. (Despite the footage, a cursory Google search suggests SFSU’s student strike was quite peaceful comapred to many subsequent campus agitations.)

The thing that would have been really valuable and interesting would have been to explore the contrasts and continuities between the couldn’t-be-more-different colleges depicted in the film. Rural, private, Ivy League, upstate New York, wealthy, elite Cornell was emphatically not urban, public, forward-thinking, experimental SF State, the state-funded institution of a city whose reputation for tolerance, embrace of new ideas and active interest in change goes all the way to its founding in 1849 and which was in the middle of the hippie counterculture love-bomb movement. One would imagine a petition for a Black Studies Department would have been met with sincere interest in a place like that, leaving no need for a five-month strike, fires set at campus buildings, or physical assault on fellow students (two of which go unmentioned in this film, though they happened). If it wasn’t, why not? What actually went wrong? The film seems to want us to believe in a simplistic story of the grit and tenacity of students of color overwhelming the injustice of the system with calm, clear, direct interface with the institution. We love David-and-Goliath stories, but SF State is such a weird casting choice for the role of Goliath that it really begs a deeper dive into why the strike emerged as the tactic of choice. I wanted to know more. I didn’t get it.

I couldn’t help wondering if any of the threatening white frat boys referenced in the Cornell incident would show their mugs on camera and either justify their threats, deny they ever made them, or say, “Yeah, I wish I’d been a little less of an ass hat back then. I didn’t get it. In retrospect, I don’t blame them for arming themselves; that was some difficult shit.” If they were located and invited and declined, the film doesn’t say so. Maybe their identities were never known? I don’t know. I’d like to.

This is such an important subject. It changed higher education in the United States, indelibly. It was deeply complex. It deserves more than a congratulatory gloss.

Agents of Change airs on America Reframed tonight at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel. Check your local listings.

Amy Glynn was raised by a member of the SFSU class of 1968 and a journalism major who worked for the “Gator” at the time of the strike.