“They don’t make ’em like they used to,” is the kind of cliché that should probably be out of circulation by now. It’s a homey, nostalgic phrase, and when it’s applied to movies it’s usually about wholesome family classics and sparkling old Hollywood confections. But if there’s anything that filmmakers really don’t make like they used to, it’s something else entirely: radical protest movies.
In the ’60s and ’70s, when the anti-Vietnam War film became a mainstay of student counterculture, these types of films were unerringly popular. Combining formal daring and experimentation with strident political statement, these progressive movies sought to assail the viewer with subversive imagery. Many documentaries and essay films were made in these turbulent decades, along with a sprinkling of punchy feature films over the wider course of the 20th century. That the struggle for women’s liberation or civil rights should still feel so relevant is troubling, but to learn from this history is to arm oneself for the future.
The impetus among young people to make truly unapologetic left-wing movies seems to have mostly died away these days. Yet amidst the corruption—both actual and moral—of President Trump’s administration, it once again feels like an urgent necessity. There’s always the hope that the next four years will bring about a brand new wave of aesthetically fresh and loud-mouthed protest movies. But in the meantime, here are a few throwbacks and oddities in the same vein. Stay woke.
This intellectually dense essay film is a close examination of the historical lead-up to the war in Vietnam. Offering an alternative version of events from the perspective of the Vietnamese—not to mention French colonialists and American foreign policymakers—director Emile de Antonio sought to offer viewers a full understanding of the conflict. De Antonio had come up as an artist during the Pop Art scene, befriending Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
This may account for his colorfully abstract imagery and Godardian cutting style, covering decades of historical and political animosity with a light-fingered, fast-moving approach. Including everything from ironic patriotic songs to valorous footage of Ho Chi Minh, De Antonio became one of the first filmmakers to stick his head over the parapet in protest. He critiqued the war for what it was—a foolish act of hubris that had descended into hellish violence.
Kentucky, 1974. Brookside coal miners have tried to unionize, and their company, fearing a domino effect, refuses to sign their contract with the union, setting a 10-month strike into motion. Barbara Kopple and her mostly female crew made their Oscar-winning documentary after spending years with the miners, bravely following them to the picket line in spite of threats from company “scabs.” As a result, the scenes Kopple and her crew are privy to are riveting; she is knocked sideways in a hail of bullets, and witness to the solidarity as well as the squabbles of the tough-minded coalition of miner’s wives. It seems prescient that so much of the focus in Harlan County, USA is on women; Kopple seems interested in the ways deeply traditional portions of the U.S. still contained powerful matriarchal figures—women with voices and real political agency. Combining plaintive protest song with displays of the miners’ abject poverty, Kopple underlines the need for Brookside mining company to improve its workers’ living conditions—or else.
Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olssen compiled this fascinating glimpse into the Black Power movement out of largely forgotten 16mm recordings. Between 1967 and 1975, a crew of documentarians had been filming Black Panthers rallies, conducting interviews, and otherwise getting candid access to some of the most controversial political activists of the day. The footage had been hidden away in the archives of the Swedish National Broadcasting Network archives. Olssen took it upon himself to put the historically significant footage together, featuring speeches and interviews from Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and contemporary cultural figures, as well. Olssen makes a point of burrowing past the accepted mainstream narrative of the Civil Rights movement, highlighting the Black Panthers’ divergent ideology.
Perhaps the lefty film to which all others owe a debt, Strike is a powerful silent movie retracing the events of a failed workers’ uprising in Tsarist Russia circa 1903. This Soviet agitprop came from the master of the political montage, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein was a maverick filmmaker who fought in Lenin’s Red Army before settling into a career at the Moscow Film School and writing seminal texts about film construction and editing style. Strike—his first foray into feature filmmaking—juxtaposes the suffering of individuals with the torture of animals, making metaphorical the cattle-like treatment of the ordinary proletarian man. Punctuated with ingenious montage sequences that are still strikingly modern, Strike was the beginning of an illustrious film career. Eisenstein was admired by Charlie Chaplin in his day, and is now studied in film schools the world over.
Even over 40 years ago, this essay film mourned the loss of the utopian socialist dream. Chris Marker, inspired by the montage style of Sergei Eisenstein, opens his dreamy meditation with clips from the Soviet filmmaker’s most famous film, Battleship Potemkin. But rather than a fervent political treatise, Marker explores a more abstract and unruly history—with a clear-eyed enough view to be surprisingly cohesive. Four hours in length but effortlessly beautiful to watch, Marker’s movie charts the rise and fall of the fragmented and disappointed mid-century Left.
Maragarethe von Trotta is an under-appreciated German director whose work has often focused on the real lives of historical women. Her biopic of famous Soviet revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is one of those works, offering a sympathetic and rousing portrait of Luxemburg as both as a thinker and as a woman. Friend to Trotsky, enemy to Stalin, and caught in a politically complex battle between the Democratic Socialists and more radical factions, “Red Rosa” was always an ambitious figure to attempt to parse onscreen. But von Trotta does an admirable job at streamlining Luxemburg’s life and her eventual politically motivated murder by the German government in 1919. She was killed at only 49 years old, but her righteous legacy—and martyrdom—would come to shape ideas of left-wing heroism for years to come.
British director Peter Watkins visited the USA in 1970-71 and this pseudo-documentary was the result. Filmed in the blazing heat of the Southwestern desert, Watkins imagines the USA as a fascist police state where all dissent is crushed. Suspected subversives are forced to choose between draconian prison sentences or a cruel cat-and-mouse game where they may have a chance at freedom. A handful of ragged student protesters are asked to escape through the desert with armed National Guardsmen hot on their heels. With no supplies or water and gunshots whizzing by, the frantic group soon splinters. Watkins’ viewpoint of an America on the tipping point of dystopia was disturbingly prescient in the wake of the real Kent State killings. And with the Nixon administration genuinely contemplating internment camps for radicals, it was hardly all that far from the realm of possibility.
King Vidor, one of the most respected filmmakers of silent and early sound Hollywood, caused a stir in Depression-era USA with this remarkable Communist parable. In this celebration of the power of the collective, Vidor imagines a group of unemployed Americans coming together to dig an irrigation ditch and thus enrich their farm with healthy wheat crops. It’s not exactly the most commercially thrilling of material, but it’s a sincere and idealistic little story of homespun hard work and the triumph of the “little guy.” Vidor always worked with bold visuals in mind, and Our Daily Bread delivers in that regard—offering an almost avant-garde montage sequence part of the way into the film.
More crassly exploitative than most of the films on this list, The Killing of America is a “mondo” doc which attempts to examine the skyrocketing murder rate of the early ’80s. In doing so, it surveys a series of appalling and violent incidents that occurred in America throughout the ’60s and ’70s—some familiar (the murder of JFK, the Texas sniper shootings) and some surprisingly obscure. Stringing together rare and ugly footage of assassinations, mass shootings and death cults, it’s not for the faint of heart—but it’s also difficult to look away. The film’s tenacious voiceover builds an argument about the violence intrinsic in American life. It’s not exactly bulletproof logic—but then nothing else is here, either.
Blacklisted film director Herbert J. Biberman made this independent production with an evident leftist message in mind. The first American film to centrally focus on Chicanos and Mexican-Americans, Salt of the Earth was an oddity by 1950s America’s standards. In a racially segregated and paranoid nation, obsessed by weeding out phantom Communists, Biberman made a bold decision and stayed true to his quest for social justice. The narrative loosely fictionalizes a real 1951 strike against a New Mexico zinc company in 1951, casting actual miners and their families as versions of themselves. Biberman not only highlights the racist pay practices of the era, but the internal misogyny within the miner’s community. His attention on pregnant but politically engaged miner’s wife Esperanza is so empathetic to a feminist viewpoint that a modern viewer can’t help but wish Biberman had been able to make more movies like this one.
Although made by a major studio—therefore in no way a grassroots effort—Reds is one of the very few Oscar-winning mainstream movies to have a real card-carrying Communist as its hero. That hero was American journalist John Reed, who covered the Russian Revolution and became such an ardent believer in the Soviet cause that he eventually was buried in the Kremlin. A sweeping story of romance and revolutionary ardor against the backdrop of the Revolution—not to mention the outbreak of the First World War—Reds manages to combine radical content with a deeply old-fashioned form of storytelling. The movie was an epic passion project for director/star Warren Beatty, who was emboldened by the wave of ’70s Hollywood radicalism that allowed new freedom of expression for liberals.
Born in Flames is a fiction film masquerading as documentary, imagining a kind, socialist USA in contrast to Ronald Reagan’s version. But even this softer nation has its trouble, and is marred by deeply sexist attitudes. Numerous factions of New York City feminist groups attempt to make changes and argue over the methods of doing so, culminating in a terrorist plot and a televised demand to pay women for housework. In spite of that occasionally bewildering plot, this freaky feminist sci-fi is a fascinating examination of women’s issues and exemplary of an intersectional approach. In the meantime, it’s also a whacked-out viewing experience. The director, Lizzie Borden, is a woman who decided to take on the name of a famed female axe murderer, after all. That should give you some idea about her attitude.
Malcolm McDowell stars as an errant schoolboy in If…, one of the legendary British films of the sixties. This send-up of boarding school values pushes back against the dictatorial and suffocating standards of the English ruling classes, Lindsay Anderson directs McDowell as an incorrigible loon—and the locus of the unfolding student rebellion. Disaffected teens and guns are never a good combination, and in some ways the film eerily presages the school shooting age. But in 1968, this satirical allegory was much more about anti-authoritarianism and the urge to ruffle the feathers of the old guard. With its gleeful anarchy, it’s a proto-punk movie if ever one existed.
Elusive, sly, and dazzlingly shot, Haskell Wexler’s directorial debut is one of the great American counterculture films. Starring Robert Forster as an ambitious young news cameraman who gets caught up in the riots at the ’68 Democratic Convention, Medium Cool is focused on the slow politicization of an initially disinterested youth. Traveling through the company of black radicals, Nixon supporters, indifferent television executives and impoverished single mothers, Wexler slowly proves that the personal is deeply political. When the carnage of the Chicago riots unfold in one searing, hypnotic long take—actual footage filmed by Wexler on the day—the transition is complete. This is a quietly revolutionary odyssey through the turmoil of a divided nation.
This 30-minute short is another example of how the strongest primary recorders of the Black Power movement seemed to be Europeans. Agnes Varda, a young member of the French New Wave’s so-called “Left Bank” group, was visiting the United States with her husband Jacques Demy when she began filming a Black Panthers demonstration in Oakland, Calif. The West Coast birthplace of the Panthers was the locus for mass protests against the arrest of founder Huey P. Newton, and Varda captures it all. Viewed with an outsider’s curious eye, this short film is a smart and compact anthropological view of its moment.
This Oscar-winning and roundly controversial documentary on the Vietnam War was released during the closing ebb of the conflict. It makes little attempt to be anything but one sided, depicting the horrors of the war alongside the often racist invective from military brass. The accusations made therein imply that war crimes were ignored and even encouraged by American officers. Producer Bert Schneider had been famous for his role at BBS Productions—responsible for counterculture classic Easy Rider. True to his hippie worldview, the producer accepted the Oscar for the film onstage with unapologetic leftist zeal.
Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989) could have also easily made this list, but the other pinnacle of Lee’s career is his epic biopic of the controversial ’60s activist. Denzel Washington’s towering performance is at the crux of the film, with a fiery charisma pulsing under a collected exterior. Unafraid to plumb the depths of the man’s weaknesses—both ideological and personal—Lee takes on the task of demythologizing a modern legend. An eerie high point in the movie comes during the evocative use of Otis Redding’s A Change is Gonna Come; as the stirring plea for civil rights is set against the dramatic lead-up to Malcolm X’s assassination.
In 1972, a group of second-wave feminists descended on the Democratic National Convention to demand abortion rights, among other things. Poet and filmmaker Sandra Hochman filmed the resulting clash, where outspoken women from Betty Friedan to Nora Ephron came to question the supposedly liberal men in charge. The result is a remarkable social document of the early seventies—both of its mildly irritating hippy-dippy indulgences but also the very real, burning impetus for change. As the women lobby future presidential nominee George McGovern to include abortion rights in his platform (something he clearly doesn’t want to do) the patronizing disregard for women is apparent. If you want to see what the world without Roe v. Wade looked like—with old white men lording around happily—check out Year of the Woman. Then go donate to Planned Parenthood.
In spite of the sappy title, this recent documentary is an excellent primer on the birth of women’s liberation movement, tracing its earliest years (1966-’71) and the burgeoning power of organizations like NOW. Including interviews with a variety of women who were on the front lines and allowing a great multiplicity of opinion, Mary Dore’s film is unafraid of the contradictions and complexities of feminist thought. The result is a lively, challenging film that refuses to simplify the movement—making it as interesting for the newcomer as it is for the more well-initiated.
Did I say radical movies were a thing of the past? Raoul Peck looks to be one of the filmmakers changing that. No list of great activist thinkers would be complete without James Baldwin, so it’s fitting that Peck’s recent documentary adapted from Baldwin’s various works makes the list. I Am Not Your Negro came out nearly as a two-hander with his biopic The Young Karl Marx, suggesting that Peck’s interest is pretty distinctly left-wing. The film cuts jaggedly between different sections of Baldwin’s life and career, giving a multidimensional portrait of the prolific author. This allows his insight on race in America to penetrate not only events and figures of the past, but to shed light on modern unrest in places like Ferguson, Missouri. This Oscar-nominated doc is not only a must-watch films for the would-be activist, but for anyone looking to brush up on a faithful interpretation of Baldwin’s work.
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.