Watching this documentary about the slow progress of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from idealism to frustration and disillusionment, one is struck by how much these archetypal ’60s radicals were products of the ’50s. These were the boys and girls who not only paid attention in their high-school civics classes but who believed what they were being taught, which included not only the inevitability of democratic capitalism but also the quasi-religious idea that American strength grew out of our essential goodness.
Over and over again, one of the talking heads in Rebels will describe that crucial trauma that occurred when they realized that our government was actually behaving badly overseas. You would have thought that their experience during the violent early days of the civil rights movement would have prepped them for the even more expansive cruelties of Vietnam, but apparently a good radical must have a boundless reserve of outrage. It’s both a great strength, as it fuels courage, and a great weakness, as it clouds judgment.
SDS was founded in 1961, but first gained wide attention a year later with the issuance of the Port Huron Statement, a seminal student protest document centering around the concept of “participatory democracy,” the idea that people, organized and focused, could challenge the machinations of the Cold War and the institutions of racism. By the mid-’60s, Vietnam had been added to the mix and the appeal of SDS grew, as confronting injustice became, for many students, a practical matter. As the war dragged on, SDS came to seem less and less effective, and soon all the headlines were being grabbed by a minute splinter group, the Weatherman, whose most perfect symbolic act was when three of its members accidentally blew themselves up with homemade explosives.
This is a partisan, one-sided presentation and the Vietnam debacle is given almost no context — the word “communist,” which once had almost mystical properties for those who would promote war, should have been confronted, but doesn’t occur even once in the entire movie. Still, it’s a compelling story and should be seen, if only for the lessons it offers future disturbers of the status quo.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].