Putting the “Document” in Documentary: American Revolution II

by Bryan & Heather

Due in part to our new home in Birmingham, Alabama, we’ve been delving  more into the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the turbulent ‘60s in general recently, and so when a documentary concerning the infamous events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago came across our Max dashboard, we were intrigued. We had watched the dramatized Trial of the Chicago Seven a few years ago and found it deeply compelling; now was our chance to learn more in a historical context. As we progressed through American Revolution II, however, we found our thoughts provoked in a different way, reflecting on the purpose of documentaries and the conditions under which they should be made.

While we knew going in that American Revolution II contained original footage from 1968, we had not realized until we started watching that not only was it composed entirely of that footage, but that it had been filmed and produced at the time, being released only one year after the events it covered, in 1969. This, combined with the filmmakers’ choice of the “verite” style of documentary, meant that there was no framing, context, or narration of the events depicted, let alone reflection on their historical significance through the benefit of any kind of delayed perspective. Indeed, it felt less like we were watching a work of history than reading a primary document shorn of any historiography–which, in fact, we mostly were.

Whether this was a positive or negative experience, however, is a more complex question, and depends on what purpose you think documentary films should serve. If documentaries’ prime role should be what their name implies, the documentation of events as they occur, then American Revolution II certainly does its job well. We had not been aware that conversations about the police brutality displayed during the convention protests continued afterward, involved both the black and white communities, and did result in some dialogue with city authorities. If you think documentaries should not just record but educate, however, as we largely do, then American Revolution II is a profound disappointment. We were only vaguely able to follow along, and it is hard to imagine anyone who does not have an extensive background studying history being able to understand the film at all, let alone gain much value from it. The title of the documentary is a case in point; the filmmakers clearly thought they were documenting something groundbreaking, with profound consequences for the American union. Over half a century later, we can see that clearly wasn’t the case, and the specific events cataloged are barely more than a footnote (ironically arguing persuasively for the importance of documenting them). Even worse, without any sense of context or import, American Revolution II can become downright boring, as its material swiftly grows repetitive and viewers can be forgiven for wondering if they haven’t seen this community meeting already twice before.

By the time we finished this odd viewing experience, we couldn’t help but feel as if we had viewed something with more value to graduate students researching their dissertations than to members of the general or even initiated public, us included. It just goes to show that, as Bryan has experienced with his ancient and American Civil War reading material, primary sources may be the very foundation of our discipline…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re engaging to peruse on their own. 

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