“This nation is in a state of turmoil perhaps unparalleled in our history. Poverty amidst wealth, widespread racism, and bafflement over a strange war are the seeds of revolution.” Those words, adhering to a standard of rhetoric that may be unfamiliar to anyone today who doesn’t tune in to KPFK or turn out for demonstrations, are actually spoken by a television anchorman in a snippet from a late-’60s newscast. The clip is one of dozens of illuminating celluloid artifacts — newsreels, file footage, other documentaries, news and personal photographs, and home movies — mixed in with contemporary interviews to tell the story of both the radical leftist collective known as the Weathermen (and later, after they’d gone into hiding, as the Weather Underground), and the cultural and political upheaval that spawned it. (The moniker was lifted from the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”)
Over The Weather Underground’s 92-minute running time, a host of interlocked issues — both text and subtext — roil over and around one another: problems of war, police brutality, racism and the struggles for civil rights that gave such groups their reasons for being; themes of loss and regret, as well as pride, resistance and activism, that continue to play out on the faces of the participants even today. Hovering heavily over this documentary by Bay Area directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel is the question: Is “by any means necessary” really a political philosophy that you can live with? No one conclusion is reached, and that’s one of the film’s strengths. Green and Siegel have done an extraordinary job of bottling a pivotal moment in American history — the feel and the frenzy of it — then uncorking it so that the audience experiences both the rush and the horror of violent political action, both the Weathermen’s sense of utopian possibility and their impatience at the limitations of sanctioned political action. Through masterful editing, nimble music selection and smart use of documentary materials, the filmmakers shake the dust off cultural clichés to provide a provocative survey of the past. It’s a subversively sleek enterprise.
But while Green and Siegel’s heavily researched, densely detailed movie can seem as passionate and engaged as its radicalized subjects, it’s no mere mash note to the notorious men and women who, quite literally, blew up the status quo. While former Weathermen such as Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, Brian Flanagan and Naomi Jaffe, among others, have been invited to analyze and untangle, on camera, the various threads of unrest and dissent in the ’60s, there is also ample time given to criticism of both their motives and their actions. There’s the brushoff by a young Black Panther in Chicago (following the Weathermen’s expressions of solidarity after the police-engineered murder, in December 1969, of Panther leader Fred Hampton), who derides the grandstanding of these white middle-class interlopers. And the biting words of Todd Gitlin — president, in 1963, of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which the Weathermen were an offshoot — who today notes that “Their ideas on revolution were kindergarten ideas . . . [Their hijacking of the student left] was infuriating and depressing.”
Indeed, the Weathermen were, for the most part, white children of privilege, young suburbanites who had the luxury of engaging in radical thought and (often violent) action without giving all that much thought to the consequences. The film also underscores how these dangerous romantics, holding to notions of a racially harmonious revolution, were too often ignorant about the complicated class dynamics at work in their movement. In speaking of their plans to bring the working class into their fold, Bob Flanagan today recalls “the idea . . . that working-class youth outside the colleges would be more revolutionary than the kids inside the colleges — which is, of course, what we were.”
“There’s no way to be committed to nonviolence in the middle of the most violent society that history has ever created. I am not committed to nonviolence in any way,” says the young Bernadine Dohrn at a televised press conference. But the Weathermen, unlike their comrades in the Panthers and the Viet Cong, had had, in fact, scant experience with actual violence. Still, while debate continues about what the left may have actually learned from its experience with violent action (from the 1969 Chicago streets riots to the bombing of corporate offices, government buildings and, in one momentous gaffe, the Weathermen’s very own bomb factory in Greenwich Village), a juxtaposition of the world we live in with the one captured by the filmmakers makes it all too clear the kinds of lessons the political right and corporate America — as they co-opt the language and imagery of revolution while clamping down on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution — managed to derive from that bygone era.
Left to right: Civil Brand’s
Monica Calhoun, N’Bushe
Wright, Lisaraye and Lark
If the Weather Underground were around today, the massive sprawl of the nation’s prison-industrial complex would doubtless be high on their list of social ills. Director Neema Barnette, working from a script by Preston A. Whitmore II and Joyce Renee Lewis, launches her own protest with the film Civil Brand, whose title is a pun on the name of Los Angeles’ very own women’s prison. The film opens with Frances (LisaRaye), quiet, tentative and unprepared for life in stir, and Sabrina (Da Brat), loud, profane and determined to cope with the worst the system can dish out. Once inside, we are introduced to a crew of types and archetypes: the badass Nikki (N’Bushe Wright), 17-year-old good Christian Little Momma (Lark Voorhies), traitorous ho Aisha (Tichina Arnold) and militant organizer Wet (Monica Calhoun). There’s also a villainous corrections officer, an impotent warden, and a rookie C.O. played by Mos Def. Civil Brand, it turns out, is a hotbed of abuse and terror, of rapes, beatings, shady business deals and legalized slave labor. Fed up and with little to lose, the women soon devise and execute a plan to take over the prison, turning the tables and tapping into a Thelma & Louise revenge vibe.
If Civil Brand works — despite last-minute budget slashing, extensive script changes and a curtailed work timetable imposed, Barnette says, by Lions Gate, the film’s distributor and one of its financiers — as an updated women’s prison melodrama with a strong whisper of political consciousness, there are some crippling flaws in the film: the wobbly performance from LisaRaye, Da Brat’s tin-eared narration (a late but inescapable addition, after the financial plug had been pulled and crucial scenes couldn’t be filmed), dialogue and plot twists that play to the dimmer bulbs in the audience. But there are also strong flickers here of a film that might have been — Mos Def’s soulful performance as the college student working his way through school by toiling at the prison, some wonderful work by cinematographer Yuri Neyman, and the vibrant presence of N’Bushe Wright: A scene in which her no-nonsense character is browbeaten into submission and forced to pronounce the words “I’ll be a good bitch” lingers in your head. So does her reply to Frances, who has just been talking about how she’s always tried to play by the rules. “I ain’t never followed no rules,” Wright says wryly, “and we end up in the same place. Ain’t that some shit?”
THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND | Directed by SAM GREEN and BILL SIEGEL | Produced by GREEN, SIEGEL, CARRIE LOZANO and MARC SMOLOWITZ | Released by Shadow Distribution | At the Nuart
CIVIL BRAND | Directed by NEEMA BARNETTE | Written by PRESTON WHITMORE and JOYCE LEWIS | Released by Lions Gate Films | Citywide