Berkeley in the Sixties is ostensibly a film about the sixties and about the incredible move from political protest to active, oftentimes violent, resistance throughout the decade. In this sense, Berkeley as a place, or an institution in the form of the University of California, quickly becomes more of a state of mind than an actual location. This doesn’t matter so much though, for this highly entertaining and thought-provoking documentary unashamedly uses Berkeley as the launch pad for an impressive rumination on the meaning of politics, counterculture, and sadly, the inability of an entire generation to, in the end, fight the powers that be.
Having said this, it is also one of those rare documentaries that remain remarkably uplifting. Interspersing documentary footage of Berkeley from the early sixties with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of organised leftist anti-war movements and onwards through the Black Panthers and Women’s Lib, the film rolls out a small but impressive list of surviving activists, all of whom are remarkably articulate.
We thus get what is perhaps a not very innovative but still highly effective documentary structure of having people who actually engaged with, and lived through the events, recounting the ‘history’ of countercultural activity in the sixties. There is little interruption by the interviewer, and despite a somewhat laconic voice-over by another ex-activist there is a real sense that this film is as much about how you survive wanting to change America, with the realization that it was perhaps doomed to never happen.
Fittingly, and scarily pertinent taking the last decade into consideration, the documentary starts with The House of Un-American Activities Committee, an organisation which clearly should be credited with more than just giving George Clooney the opportunity to make a film with a lot of smoking in it. As it transpires, the vehemence of the McCarthyist witch-hunts was precisely the sort of thing that spurred on a growing disgust with the Establishment. This – coupled with the fact that civil unrest and protest was being televised on an unprecedented scale – is set up from the beginning of the documentary as a quintessential reason why people eventually flocked to Berkeley, whether it be to drop in, tune out or simply turn on to what was happening.
The film is deceptively shrewd in this manner, for despite its folksy musical soundtrack and footage of flower power girls doing that topless swaying dance we always get in snippets from Woodstock, the film lays bare the necessary media savvy-ness of the more successful countercultural movements. There is some great commentary from ex-Black Panther leaders acknowledging how the fascination with Afros and guns led many impotent-feeling white middle-class revolutionaries to suddenly become ‘brothers’.
Possibly a sign of old age, or simply growing disgust with the complete lack of engagement by university students in current affairs, I was struck by how one student leader shouted into a megaphone on the campus steps: ‘There are times when the operations of the machine become so odious you just have to do something.’ This is a film, then, about a brief moment in American history when some people actually did.