We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
The “Native American Images on Film” series on Turner Classic Movies continues with Thunderheart, the Michael Apted-directed 1992 Hollywood thriller inspired by the real-life events at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s, when the collision of members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI agents became a weeks-long siege. I write about it for TCM here.
Val Kilmer puts on the Raybans to play taciturn and loyal FBI agent Ray Levoi, whose Indian ancestry (Levoi’s father was part Sioux) are all the qualifications the feds care about when they send him to investigate a murder on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The young, handsome Kilmer had attained the status of movie star the previous year playing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). While make-up adds just a hint of duskiness to his complexion, Kilmer’s own ancestry includes Cherokee blood. Levoi, however, has spent his life denying his Indian blood and the assignment only rouses his resentments (one local dubs him the “Washington redskin”). It, of course, makes him a prime candidate for a spiritual reawakening, guided by dedicated tribal cop Walter Crow Horse (the dryly witty Graham Greene, who was previously an Academy Award® nominee for his supporting role in Dances with Wolves ) and the tribal medicine man Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk). As Ray digs into the murder case, he discovers the evidence doesn’t support the FBI’s theory, which has blamed the murder on the local leader of the militant Aboriginal Rights Movement, or ARM (a fictionalized version of the real-life American Indian Movement, aka AIM). More telling, Ray’s new boss Frank “Cooch” Coutelle (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even care, which sends Ray digging even deeper into a conspiracy that challenges his allegiance to the FBI (“the Federal Bureau of Intimidation,” as Walter dubs them).