Revolution ’67 (California Newsreel, NR)

dvd_revolutioln_67.jpgThe story of Newark riots, and the conditions which preceded and followed them, is the subject of this documentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On July 12, 1967, African-American cab driver John Smith was arrested for a minor traffic violation in Newark, New Jersey. While in police custody, Smith was beaten so badly he required hospitalization, and rumors spread through a crowd gathered outside the 4th Precinct police station that he had died at the hands of the police. This event was the spark which set off the 1967 Newark riots (or the Newark rebellion, as some prefer to label it), as the crowd dispersed down nearby streets, breaking shop windows and eventually reaching downtown Newark. Six days later, 26 people were dead, over 700 injured, and property damage was estimated in the range of $10 million. The story of Newark riots, and the conditions which preceded and followed them, is the subject of the documentary Revolution ’67, first broadcast in 2007 on the PBS program POV and now available on DVD.

Smith’s arrest may have been the spark, but Newark in 1967 was a powder keg waiting to be ignited. The city was fast becoming a concentrated pocket of poverty, as federal housing programs and interstate construction encouraged the middle class to depart for the suburbs, while bank redlining led to the deterioration of urban housing stock and high-rise housing projects concentrated the poor in substandard living conditions. Employment for African-Americans was scarce: many industrial employers had already left Newark and the remaining jobs, both municipal and private, were held disproportionately by white residents. City government was openly corrupt, and Mayor Hugh Addonozio was later sentenced to ten years for extortion and conspiracy. Despite an African-American majority in the city, the Newark police force was almost 90 percent white and had a history of poor relations with the African-American community.

Revolution ’67 is a conventional documentary, constructed primarily from archival footage and talking-head interviews supplemented with animations. However, filmmakers Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno do not impose an absolute version of truth on the events of the riots or the conditions which preceded or followed them, instead presenting a collage of sometimes conflicting testimony from many individuals along with film clips from news archives and other sources. People interviewed in the film include historians Nell Irvin Painter and Kenneth Jackson, public officials Brendan T. Byrne, Sharpe James and Armando Fontoura, poet Amiri Baraka, National Guardsman Paul Zigo, and activists Carol Glassman, Tom Hayden and George Richardson.

Most of the time the filmmakers simply juxtapose differing points of view and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions. The principal exception is their examination of the charge that African-American snipers were prevalent during the riots, as evidenced by the New York Times headline "Newark Riot Deaths at 21 as Negro Sniping Widens." Forensic investigations later revealed that while the police and National Guard fired over 13,000 rounds of ammunition during the riots, fewer than 100 rounds could be attributed to the rioters.

Guardsman Zigo’s charge that he was shot at by snipers, because neither the police nor the National Guard used automatic weapons, is directly refuted by a news clip of a Newark policeman with a Thompson automatic submachine gun. The veracity of the famous Life Magazine photo of a purported African American sniper is also questioned: Amiri Baraka states that it is a studio photograph (while offering no proof), and Tom Hayden claims he spent "thousands of hours" unsuccessfully trying to track down when and where it was taken.

The best segments of Revolution ’67 are those concerning the riots themselves, which contrast contemporary media coverage with eyewitness testimony from many individuals and create a real sense of the confusion and uncertainty of those six days. The conditions in Newark preceding the riots are also convincingly presented, but the final third of the film, which examines the long-term effects of the riots, is less satisfying. Judging by the preponderance of evidence presented, the title Revolution ’67 must be intended as irony because Newark forty years later is in worse shape than it was immediately before the riots. Poverty and unemployment are higher, population continues to decline, and the parade of officials indicted for corruption continues although their skin color has changed. The succession of talking heads offering generic explanations for this state of affairs quickly becomes tiresome, and the filmmakers grant far too much screen time to an amazingly self-centered Tom Hayden, who  seems to regard the riots as just one more item on his political resume.

Revolution ’67 is distributed on DVD by California Newsreel. The DVD includes both the 83-minute broadcast version and a full version 90-minute version; the only other extra on the disc is a chapter index. Further information about the film and the Newark riots is available from the PBS website  and from the filmmakers’ website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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