All it takes is one photo to initiate social change; that, and years of defiant work to produce this moment. A well-composed photo can encapsulate the pain and struggles of thousands and tell their story in one frame.
Although it can seem like it, these photos aren’t anomalies or instances of being at the right place at the right time. On April 19, 1969, a photo of several Black Cornell students holding guns and wearing bandoleers on the steps of Willard Straight Hall surfaced on the cover of Newsweek and other publications. The picture marked a moment during a protest in which persecuted Black students at the school armed themselves and stayed in the hall after a series of threatening and damaging events that night. It helped expose racism in higher education and document a crucial moment in the late ’60s civil rights movement.
“Agents of Change” retells the events leading up to this picture at both Cornell University and San Francisco State University. It includes current interviews with the actual protesters — who all appear to look far younger than they likely are — that retell how the events actually happened. Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon”) is the only celebrity included, and his screen time is balanced with other less famous — though equally regarded in their respective field — individuals. Each interviewee is poised and so proud of their efforts, and it is inspiring to see.
The San Francisco State University and Cornell protests were among the most potent of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Black students spoke out against unequal opportunity in higher education and a Eurocentric curriculum that neglected minority groups. Unfortunately, equal representation at many colleges, including the University of Michigan, is still a critical issue today.
“Agents of Change” informs and aims to inspire audiences to replicate such tremendous efforts as those seen at SFSU and Cornell. The connection with these movements and campuses today, however, is unclear. It doesn’t ever reference changes that could be made today, so it is up to the viewer to make this connection between the past and present. As clear as it is that these issues still exist, some viewers might lack the intuition to make a connection. It is not necessarily a mistake, but not bluntly stating a connection to today’s social climate prevents the documentary from exploring the issues more deeply. The goals of the film are unclear; is it simply informative, or a reminder of what change can be done today?
The documentary is extremely focused to the extent that essentially all of the content is about the SFSU and Cornell protests during the ’60s. Its narrow focus is its best and worst quality. Viewers will learn a lot about these protests, though the chance to include knowledge about various contemporary ones is sacrificed. By doing so, the film tackles almost every aspect of the two protests; it is impossible to get a more detailed summation than what is provided in “Agents of Change.”
“Agents of Change” is stylistically subtle. It tells its narrative through interviews and not flashy graphics or pseudo-artistic montages. Its soundtrack is diverse and rich, including tracks like Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” and Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.”
Sadly, viewers looking for entertainment along with education may get a little distracted at times. The documentary doesn’t reflect the zeitgeist of the late ’60s. Rather, it tells a story of human will and the power to create. Those looking for a more holistic retelling should seek out a less-focused documentary.
In the early ’70s, efforts to increase black student enrollment at the University of Michigan were made to reflect the population of African-Americans in the state, at 10 percent. Today, the University fails to even come close to such numbers. With only a 4 percent black student population at the school, it is far from reflecting the 14 percent population in the state. Certainly, a 2006 state ban of affirmative action and intransigent policymakers stand in the way. The efforts seen within “Agents of Change” should act as a reminder that progress is always, not only a possibility, but a probability when passionate, motivated people come together for a movement greater than oneself.
“Agents of Change” is being screened by the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies from 4-6 p.m. at Haven Hall on November 3rd.