Imagining change: a short history of radical film in the U.S.A.

by Chuck Kleinhans


I was asked to give the opening keynote address to the Radical Film Network gathering in New York City, May 3, 2017. RFN was organized by two British scholars who received a grant to run several events. They had two conferences in the UK in earlier years and decided to have the third one in NYC with the aim of international expansion. The NYC situation allowed for the conference to take place the three days before the month long Workers Unite! Film festival that takes place at different venues around the city every May.

I didn’t attend the earlier events in the UK, but I was eager to attend this one. In retrospect I think it made a healthy advancement of the organization’s goals. I also wrote up a set of reflections after the event which I’ll post separately. I’ve elaborated a few points here that came up in the Q&A after my talk.

Alex Juhasz, media teacher/scholar/activist, gave me a very flattering introduction.       


Workers Leaving the Factory (Lumière)
(Note that many of the workers here are women)

Thanks for that introduction, Alex. I want to thank Steve Presence, Mike Wayne, Andrew Tilson, and the other organizers of this wonderful event for inviting me to talk to you today. And, it’s great to be back in New York City, a sanctuary city, which on Monday, May Day, the international worker’s day, held a number of number of rallies and demonstrations for immigrant workers (as did other U.S. cities).

I was asked to discuss the history of radical film in the U.S. providing a perspective on the situation we find ourselves in today, and hopefully, I’ll add, looking to what we might accomplish in the future. Obviously we now live in interesting times and a new energized discussion is taking place among activists in the wake of recent electoral events. I don’t want to address that discussion here. I think we will all be referring to it both formally and informally during the conference, and we can learn from each other.

Similarly, I’m working from a broad understanding of the term “radical.” My own interest has always been to look at things from the perspective of grass roots activism encompassing issues of class, race and ethnicity, gender, and so forth and with an international and cross-cultural perspective. And oh, I should probably mention that I’ve been a working photographer, and made films and videos.

I want to address three large topics today. One is to take a longitudinal look, an historical survey, of radical film. Second is to take a latitudinal regard, to move from the usual focus on specific films and makers to include other agents in the much larger process of funding, production, distribution, exhibition, political organizing, curating, archiving, and teaching. Third is to consider the role of new and changing technologies in radical media opportunities in the past, present, and future.


From the very start of film, the working class has been present in film, although usually without a voice or without their perspective.

The power of moving image photography, adding to a previous activist practice of using photography for social and political reform, such as depicting the conditions of the poor, was seen as an important tool by reformists, both liberal and radical. And, we might remember, even by conservatives, as in D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat which contrasts the opulence of the rich and the misery of the poor caused by to a capitalist speculator in the grain market. By apparently divine justice, he dies buried in wheat.

The potential of filmmaking for effective propaganda for a social and political cause inspired early efforts in the U.S. and the U.K, for issues such as women’s suffrage, healthcare reform, poverty, and so forth. Early in the 20th century, we see film used for documentation, and for dramatic narration of important issues. So: to show and to persuade.

And let me remind us of the importance of visual evidence: of showing in a way that earlier was conveyed through the extensive filter of words, of journalism within the framework of the capitalist press. The footage of Jack Johnson, the famous boxer, itself was considered so potent at showing a black man beating a white boxer, that it was often censored by cities and by states, as the man himself was attacked by white opinion (and at the same time provided a powerful image for African Americans).

Thus, it’s not always the precise intention of moving images that accounts for everything. We also have to understand the history of how films were seen and used by the audience.

In addition to actuality presentations and social reform efforts, we know that throughout the Teens and Twenties entertainment cinema appealed to the working class, and while I won’t get into that here, I want to note that comedy, particularly in the figure of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, stood for and gave an empathetic validation to the dispossessed, picturing Charlie as clever, resourceful, and an active agent in facing opposing forces.

Two other moments from the 1920s should be mentioned here: the full flowering of a radical film movement in the Soviet 20s, with innovative directors seizing the opportunity to build on earlier developments in film form and narrative for a directly politically informed body of work, though it would become better known in the West in the 1930s. And, without the resources of state sponsorship, independent artists working in the Surrealist and Dada movements created the first examples of an artisan cinema that often addressed political topics.

Both of these movements inspired people in the U.S. in the 1930s to develop the Film and Photo League and begin the production of working class activist films. The Film and Photo League worked with labor organizing lead by the Communist Party, and in that framework also showed Soviet films and was thus an important starting point for directly political filmmaking, supporting not only documentation of actual strikes and protests from a ground-level point of view, but contributing to international efforts such as support for Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

This period marks the start of a sustained social documentary movement in the U.S. (detailed in the standard histories such as Eric Barnouw and Jack Ellis) that is often linked to liberal-progressive films of the era such as Roosevelt administration policy promotions for rural electrification and water resource management. And in passing, I think it’s worth noting that we have often looked at many films of this era and in this tradition as “liberal” or “mildly progressive” rather than truly class-consciously radical. (I’ve said that in teaching and writing.) But looking back from the current neoliberal shredding of the social contract and the destruction of public goods such as clean drinking water, and the capitalist takeover of such essentials as healthcare and education, we might want to reconsider those films as promoting basic rights.

These films and their filmmakers showed that cinema could be a powerful force for influencing public opinion, for showing otherwise hidden events and situations, and adding to the visual imagination of political understanding. And WW2 accelerated media use in the service of national policy and practice. For military training, for industrial education, for propaganda film production--all of which was outside of the Hollywood studio system--there was a vast expansion of filmmaking, particularly in 16mm form. After the war this also produced a huge surplus of film technology: film projectors went to K-12 classrooms, and a new educational film market developed. Film cameras and discount film stock were available for independent filmmaking. And new markets appeared: for television journalism, for advertising, and for industrial use.

That change in the infrastructure provided the basis for a new wave of politically motivated radical film in the 1960s. The fiercely militant film. Columbia Revolt (1968) by New York Newsreel could come into being precisely because of earlier work by a wide variety of progressive filmmakers: some of them artists and some of them journalists and some of them people with something to say who realized that it really was now within their grasp to make a film.

For example, the artist: immigrant from Lithuania and antiwar activist : Jonas Mekas, The Brig (1964) interpreted last outlaw performance of the Living Theatre’s production of the anti-military play by Kenneth Brown, at the start of the U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War.

And earlier, the journalist: Edward R. Murrow’s report on migrant farm labor, Harvest of Shame, shown Thanksgiving evening on a major network.

And individuals and local groups: Edward Bland et al. who made an amazing polemic about African American culture in The Cry of Jazz.

The 60s also marked an important change in the U.S. radical film scene as international films brought new topics and ideas into public discussion in the US. In particular the works of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave gave younger audiences new ways of imagining the world, their place in it, and how to understand it. These challenging films became part of a common core of this generation’s intellectual development, and often the most compelling way to consider ethics, politics, personhood, and being engaged in the world. New work from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary opened eyes to another view of socialist society. And films such as The Battle of Algiers presented a compelling understanding of colonial repression and national liberation.

Most significantly, films produced by, for, and in the Third World became available. Films from Cuba, Latin America, and Africa presented a new political militancy and boosted the growing native U.S. opposition to the Vietnam War and expanded anti-imperialist consciousness. The presence of these new voices encouraged broadening of the audience and issues, as well as speaking in new ways to newly emerging political movements: Black Civil Rights, Chicano farm labor organizing, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the beginnings of a Second Wave feminism. And younger radicals often began the important task of recovering the lost and repressed history of earlier militant activism that had been suppressed by the Cold War by recovering and exhibiting films such as Salt of the Earth (1954)by blacklisted makers

And by making films about the militant past such as Union Maids and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter.

This movement changed in the 1970s, in part because of changing politics, in part because of changing conditions, and with the arrival of new faces and new perspectives, the world of radical film continued to evolve. New work continued to be made, but often under different circumstances. That transition was complicated. For example, while initially broad based and shaped by socialist feminists, the Women’s Movement was often weakened by domination by white liberal feminists who tied it to the Democratic Party, and who ignored women of color or rejected cultural lesbian feminism. It took time, and “the long way around” to bring this diversity back together. I want to quickly point this out here, the actual history and politics are complicated, and I don’t want to get into a contest about it. But it is important to note that movements change. The gay liberation movement for example, went from being a relatively simple civil rights and cultural hub to becoming increasingly political with the AIDS crisis. And the films made in, with, and by emerging forces also changed: the Black Movement after the end of the Black Panthers, and so forth.

Throughout the Reagan and Bush Era (1980-1992) radical filmmaking continued but in a broadening stream. Part of this reflected new social and political movements, part of this resulted from advances made in television and journalism to represent women and minorities, and part of this resulted from newer technologies making production and distribution easier, quicker, and cheaper. The shift to video in broadcast and professional making as well as in alternative and grass roots media allowed for vastly different shooting ratios, quicker turn around for news production. We might remember the Vietnam War that appeared to U.S. dinner tables in the 60s was shot on film and shipped to the U.S. for processing and editing. When combined with satellite transmission, video allowed for real time coverage of events. And the new delivery system of videocassettes grew through the 1980s to allow radical “film” to be seen easily in many new spaces: the home, the workplace, the school, the community center, the gathering of friends.

With this understanding, let me underline the title of my talk: imagining change. I think this is a useful way to think about the “radical” in “radical film.” Media that helps us and others imagine that change is needed, that it is possible, and what it might look like. Thus radical film should be understood as a spectrum of possibilities and examples. During the darkest days of Bertolt Brecht’s exile from Nazi Germany, he wrote about what people within Hitler’s realm could do to resist within a totalitarian dictatorship: talk about change. Against the “Thousand Year Reich,” the playwright said simply reminding people of dialectics, of contradiction and inevitable change, broke the power of the dictator.

We can use the same idea to form an encompassing view of radical media today. What works to help people imagine change? Certainly it’s easy to see how short militant works targeted at specific campaigns such as the fight for a higher minimum wage, or against a pending change to environmental policy should be included here. But it’s also the case that within the weekend multiplexes, in the past few years we can find films that point to the necessity for change and the possibility of change: Academy award winner Moonlight and box office hit Get Out are cases in point.

Indeed, we are living in a remarkable period of media that recognizes black America. Consider: Hidden Figures, Loving, Fruitvale Station, Tangerine, The People Versus O. J. Simpson; O.J.: Made in America; Selma, 13th, I Am Not Your Negro.

But as you can see, I’ve already moved beyond my initial longitudinal survey of notable films into my ideas about the larger context of the world surrounding the individual film and about technological change. So let me pivot to that.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)