Home fires burning

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday October 23, 2018
Share this Post:

"The War at Home" (1979) One of the hardest things for a filmmaker, especially a politically committed one, is to judge how one's work will age. Will it survive as a first draft of history? Will it be rendered for its historical footage for latter-day docs by filmmakers who lack knowledge of the sacrifices made to get it?

Directed by Glenn Silber, "The War at Home" captures how a generation of students at the University of Wisconsin/Madison was radicalized by school authorities complicit in the American war machine. We're shown how once-peaceful demonstrators were brutally beaten by campus, city and state police. The film traces a kind of timeline of political engagement experienced by middle-class students who were far from radical or even politically engaged when they first stepped on campus.

Archival footage of UW officials and security officers finds them treating the fresh-faced protesters out to expose and shut down war research as if they were a student auxiliary of the Viet Cong. The 70s-era interviews reflect the growing generation gap between administrators and radicalized students and faculty.

The film documents the Chicago "police riot" against young people backing peace candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy. A contemporary observer reflects that the Minnesota Senator wasn't a possible standard-bearer against Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, but the best alternative at the time. The filmmakers include footage sharply critical of the eventual Democratic nominee, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, and then-darling of the left Sen. Teddy Kennedy, shown making fun of an anti-war spokesman during an early campus rally.

"Life and Nothing More" (2017) Angry words of an inner-city African American mother demanding that her adolescent son abide by her rules for living in her apartment: "Don't fuck with me, boy. You are disrespectful, you are your father's son!"

This deliberately paced docudrama from writer-director Antonio Mendez Esparza deftly walks a line between real life and carefully crafted fiction. The mother (tough but nurturing Regina Williams steals her every scene), pregnant with an older boyfriend's child, is confronting tough choices: an abortion against her boyfriend's wishes, and criminal charges against her rebellious teenage son for threatening visitors at a public park with a knife. The scenes mirror real life, and the actors deftly underplay their parts. The mother, confronting problems from all directions, has the dilemmas of today's inner-city communities.

The film begins and ends with the young man paying a visit to his convict birth dad, a sorrowful tribute to the effect that dads, absent or present, have on young minority men. (Both open Friday.)