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Black Studies Matter | Abby Ginzberg's new documentary, Agents of Change, revisits black activism at SF State and Cornell in the '60s. | By Michael Fox

A curious thing happened to East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg in the seven years she spent revisiting and researching her pivotal college experience. Old news became new news, and the blight of racial injustice returned to the front page. That cloud had a silver lining, though: Foundations and individuals were suddenly interested in climbing onboard to support the project.

Agents of Change takes us to San Francisco State and Cornell in the late 1960s, when black college students across the country were demanding the expansion of the hewed-in-stone Eurocentric curriculum to include black studies departments. Ginzberg was a sophomore at Cornell when black students took over the student union building in an action that galvanized the campus and—thanks to the enlightened response of the university president and the provost—ended peacefully and fueled a broader understanding among the entire student body of the struggles of Africa-American students.

If there's a moral to be taken from the 1960s, and Agents of Change, it's that an advance won't stand without a continued fight. Ginzberg and co-director Frank R. Dawson, a veteran LA media executive and associate dean at Santa Monica College who was a year behind Ginzberg at Cornell (though they didn't know each other then), frame the film with footage of contemporary Black Lives Matter protests as well as a montage of headlines illustrating that black studies programs are a prime target of the current nationwide budget cuts of higher education.

Ginzberg's path to filmmaking was an unusual one: She practiced as a lawyer for nearly a decade before starting to make films more than 30 years ago.

"The documentary field didn't exist when I was in college," Ginzberg recalls. "I didn't go to film school. I wanted to find another way to participate in conversations about justice. What drove me to law school was social justice, and racial justice, and criminal justice. But the issues I thought I would deal with as a lawyer I ended up dealing with as a filmmaker."

Interestingly, the documentary legend Frederick Wiseman likewise began his career as an attorney and was galvanized to take up filmmaking by rank injustice—the treatment of inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass.

"I got lucky that I wanted to tell stories that no one else wanted to tell and had a big justice component to them," Ginzberg says. "I was in a niche of my own making. It has enabled me to cobble together a set of films that are a series, although they were never thought of as a series.

Most recently, that niche has consisted of unearthing and reviving the legacies of pioneering judges and attorneys who came from modest beginnings and displayed extraordinary moral character. Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson's American Journey (2005) saluted the civil rights accomplishments of the federal judge, and Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice (2010) recounted the remarkable life and record of the first Chicano judge appointed to the California Supreme Court. Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa (2014) introduced the wider world to a white activist, lawyer, and judge who risked his life to oppose apartheid.

"I've always been interested in and motivated by the overlap between history and biography," Ginzberg declares. "You're going for themes that emerge from somebody's biography that enable you to talk about history in a different way. Someone who's just an interesting character doesn't work for me. I'm really interested in telling the stories of people that took place against the arc of a larger historical canvas."

Unlike her previous films, Agents of Change doesn't focus on a single protagonist but several whose recollections become a riveting oral history (augmented with a blistering soundtrack including James Brown and the Chambers Brothers). Ginzberg was initially focused on Cornell, but was persuaded to expand her focus to include SF State. That decision enriched the project immensely, not only because the film was now bicoastal but because the responses of university leadership were so different.

S.I. Hayakawa, with the full backing (if not the full prodding) of Gov. Ronald Reagan, summoned the police to attack the striking SF State students. But where Cornell was rural and isolated, SF State was located in a progressive city.

"The key thing I came to understand," Ginzberg says about SF State, "was this synergistic relationship between the efforts of the students to recruit more students of color—which put them in the community," and the subsequent willingness of that community to show up and support the students on strike.

Ginzberg wants audiences of Agents of Change, especially those of a certain age, to realize—as she did, in the late 1960s—that activism is not only important from a social perspective but sets the individual on an altruistic, enriching path for life. The conviction of the interviewees in the film is palpable, as is our sense of the kinds of people they became in adulthood.

"These were formative events for most of the people who were engaged in them," Ginzberg says. "Eighteen to 21 is a time in people's lives when they are quite open and willing to take risks."

If that philosophy wasn't much in evidence seven years ago, it certainly is today.

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Michael Fox is The Monthly's film critic.

 

 


Abby Ginzberg's documentary Agents of Change visits racially charged times at SF State and Cornell. Top to Bottom: Abby Ginzberg; Ginzberg with Frank R. Dawson; Still from Agents of Change. Photos courtesy Agents of Change.


Agents of Change screens 1 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Casto St., San Francisco. Discussion with activists follows.