Two Oscar Nominated Movies, and Why the Sixties Never Leave Us

by on April 22, 2021 · 3 comments

in History, Media, Ocean Beach

By David Helvarg / The Hill / April 19, 2021

Two movies nominated for Academy Awards for both “Best Picture” and ”Original Screenplay” are “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.” They capture an iconic time in our history in ways that few earlier cinematic efforts have managed with a couple of notable exceptions.

These include Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” that revealed the tactical and strategic challenges of the 1960s civil rights movement for Martin Luther King and his fellow activists and Milos Forman’s “Hair” that explicitly connected the emergence of an exuberant hippie culture to the looming death culture of the Vietnam war.

Actual Chicago 7 and their lawyers.

My own family history was somewhat cinematic. As a child my father survived a massacre of hundreds of people in his Ukraine village, later escaping across the snow, carrying his little sister on his back. My mother was interrogated by the Nazis when she was nine years old and then had to be sent away from her family and her country the next day.

I, on the other hand, grew up in America, watching images of Black people being clubbed, bitten by dogs, hosed down, even murdered on black and white TV, all for insisting on their rights as U.S. citizens. I realized early on that as a first-born son of war refugees I had both a unique freedom that saved my parents lives and unearned privilege — white skin privilege — which, due to systemic racism, guaranteed that our nation’s freedoms were not evenly distributed.

My family’s experiences combined with what was happening in America, convinced me that history can kick the struts out from under you at any time, so I became active in the resistance moments of the late 1960s. I attended my first civil rights march at age 13 with my older sister who was 15. We followed older people in their 20s and 30s as they took over the Brooklyn Bridge demanding construction jobs for Black workers.

I was a 17-year-old anti-war protester in Chicago during the police riots of 1968, where I got my first taste of tear gas and blunt force trauma and saw Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden and a very bloodied Rennie Davis who are among the main characters portrayed in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

At the end of 1969 as a freshman at Boston University, I was leaving my trial in which I was one of three student radicals acquitted of the most serious felony charges stemming from a brawl with the police that could have gotten me seven years in prison. Just outside the courthouse I picked up a Boston Globe to read that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had been killed along with fellow panther Mark Clark during a police raid in Chicago vividly portrayed as the assassination that it was in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” At that moment I concluded it would probably take a revolution to stop racism and end the war in Vietnam. I might have been half right.

Today I’d consider a shift from potential fascism to social democracy and racial equity an American revolution, the hopeful possibility of which leaves me as anticipatory and fearful as I was outside that courthouse at age 18. As the figures of Dave Dellinger and Bill Kunstler in the “Chicago 7” movie remind us, growing older should never mean losing your sense of outrage at justice denied.

Part of the wonder of these two movies is in reminding me how young many of us were when the apparatus of state repression under Richard Nixon was brought down (unevenly) upon those who believed in peace now, in the rainbow coalition advocated by “Chairman Fred,” in a youth revolution to reimagine our world. Even our movement’s blind spots helped generate productive new forces including the gay and women’s movements that would go on to transform society for the better.

Today’s transformations can be traced to young leaders ranging from Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman to the indigenous youths involved in the fight to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, student survivor-activists of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting and many leaders of Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise movement. In my own work with young activists such as Sea Youth Rise Up and Earth Echo I no longer see future leaders but rather leaders today that we can partner with, mentor and support.

While I’m thrilled watching Academy Award nominated movies such as “Chicago 7” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” that accurately reflect the social reality of my piece of “A People’s History of the United States,” I’m even more satisfied to see today’s progressive movement grown smart enough to combine mass street protest with community organizing, voter registration and voter turnout.

Who would have thought that a Senate election in Georgia contested between the far-right and the center-left could save the planet? A democratic majority in the Senate might do just that. But of course the struggle continues and the response to high voter turnout among Black, brown and young voters has been multi-state voter suppression laws. The only difference between my youth in the 1960s and today is where Black voters used to be suppressed because they were Black, today Black voters are suppressed because they’re Democrats.

I look forward to the movie that will likely be made of this ongoing and historic battle based on the life of voting rights advocates such as Stacey Abrams and her sisters and brothers.

David Helvarg is a former OBcean and staff member of the original OB Rag; now an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter from South O April 22, 2021 at 1:03 pm

Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is worth the price of admission alone!


Scott Zagoria April 26, 2021 at 3:52 pm

my parents took me to see hair in nyc when i was 10. they were selling nudity back then. you could go to see jesus christ superstar if you wanted politics. or listen to ‘who killed davy moore’. it was a while ago, folks. but hair was about as political as the wive’s tale about alex hamilton. pure joseph papp. peace.


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 8:05 pm

While I like the sentiment expressed in this sentence:

“Black voters used to be suppressed because they were Black, today Black voters are suppressed because they’re Democrats.”

I would modify it to read:

Black voters used to be suppressed only because they were Black, today Black voters are suppressed because they are Black and because they are Democrats.”


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