REBELS WITH A CAUSENR
In its heyday, Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, was one of the most notorious counterculture groups in the country. Formed in Michigan in 1960, the group reached its greatest prominence during the Vietnam War. By 1970, it was little more than a shell, torn apart by dissension among splinter groups like the Weathermen. Rebels With a Cause uses interviews with over 20 of its members to provide a sort of oral history of the group. But the interviews tend to paint SDS in the best possible light, making the film seem self-serving rather than objective. It will be of interest primarily to those who already share its views.
California State Senator Tom Hayden describes how he helped write the Port Huron Statement in 1962; its concept of 'participatory democracy' changed the way members viewed local politics. Hayden and other members talk about traveling to the South to work on civil-rights campaigns; SDS agents also organized residents in Northern cities like Newark.
Writer and professor Todd Gitlin says that the SDS taught him how economics worked, and recalls a campaign by the SDS to stop the Chase Manhattan Bank from supporting apartheid in South Africa. Self-professed anarchist Carl Davidson provides an amusing account of trying to organize students in Nebraska in 1965.
As the Vietnam War continued, SDS members organized sit-ins at local draft boards, encouraged burning draft cards, and led demonstrations in Washington. But Davidson points out that as the government escalated the war effort, SDS members 'increased the levels of their militancy.'
Slogans like 'By Any Means Necessary' and 'Bring the War Home' show how SDS methods began to shift. Although lawyer Mark Spiegel notes, 'I don't think anyone had a clear notion of what we wanted to do,' others agree that 'there were no non-violent options.' Taking their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, an underground group known as the Weathermen advocated what amounted to terrorism. In 1970, three Weathermen making bombs blew up a Manhattan townhouse, killing themselves. SDS leadership seemed adrift. Some blame the FBI's Cointelpro program for disrupting the SDS, but everyone agrees that by 1970, the organization had lost its effectiveness.
Composed almost entirely of talking heads and TV archival footage, Rebels With a Cause is visually drab and emotionally inert. Its members deliver their stories as if reciting speeches, right down to the enervating political jargon. Members claim that the SDS brought about change in the civil-rights movement, the anti-war crusade and feminism, and even drove President Lyndon Johnson from office. But apart from violence, it's hard to point to any concrete results from the organization. Director Helen Garvy fails to provide much of a social or cultural context for the events in the film, and could have been more skeptical about some of the material. Although earnest, Rebels With a Cause is too self-aggrandizing to be entirely trustworthy.