Connections: Agents of Change and Nichols

In “What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own?“, Nichols (2001) writes that “the voice of documentary … is the means by which this particular point of view or perspective becomes known to us” (p. 43). This point of view in Agents of Change, a documentary by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson focusing on the lives of black and African American students on two college campuses in the 60s, is a call for social justice that uses historical contextualization for modern day issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The documentary addresses the key figures through interview and archival footage and pictures, recording their accounts with historical evidence of protest and action on the campuses of San Francisco State and Cornell.


Video courtesy of archive.org

From the high-energy, stylized choices of the documentarian — from the music (such as “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”) to the language used in interviews (“it was a season of awakening”) — the documentary also heavily relies on the evocative: these elements work together to create a sense of unity and strength. This unity and strength coincides with the credibility of its subjects, those who actually experienced it and now share their memory of what happened.

Speaking of memory, this element of filmmaking is something on which both Ginzberg and Dawson are heavily reliant. As these agents of change share their stories, they are shadowed by their former selves: literally, pictures of their younger selves are placed in the background as recall to how history has shaped who they are today. This echoes the documentary’s sentiments of looking in the past to assess the change necessary for today and style (a juxtaposition of yesterday and today).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Agents of Change and Social Justice

Agents of Change, a documentary chronicling issues of civil rights and race relations on college campuses and the change prompted by black students at universities, examines the social and political climate both a national scale, and within the universities themselves by using jarring photos, videos and personal interviews with those students from the 60s and 70s to bring to life these issues of the day. The documentary uses music from black artists that echo the sentiments of the students, such as a call and response chant “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” to emphasize the notion of black students becoming increasingly outspoken about the necessity for black culture to be accepted and recognized on campuses, through scholarship, treatment, and policy.

What I felt was particularly noteworthy was the pulitzer prize winning photograph of students at Cornell carrying guns across campus, marching in solidarity for a call of change in academia and policy. The reaction towards this in national media caused fright, nervousness, and outrage, but these students were exemplary of the urge and desire for social justice and representation, which in that moment was ultimately met with success.

A Time For Justice Response

In watching A Time For Justice by Charles Guggenheim (1994), I was struck by how the documentary utilized contextualized images with audio that reflected the images we were seeing: crowds chanting, the bustle of street noise, etc. I thought that the documentary also properly treats the history of the Civil Rights Movement with an ethical understanding by using metaphoric imagery and eerie sounds to evoke the mood rather than relying on sensational images of gore or disfiguration.

Jansen Reading

Sue Curry Jansen’s “Media, Democracy, Human Rights, and Social Justice” (2011) reenforces ideas about how social justice is imperative in documentary work, outlined in the paragraph below. Social justice calls on us to be mindful creators, collaborators, and human beings when working with others, especially those members of minority or marginalized groups. As Jansen quotes John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice, social justice can be pinpointed to one word — “fairness” — to ensure that our documentary work is one of equity (p. 4). As Jansen writes below:

“Maintaining sympathetic understanding and putting an ethics of care into practice requires activists and scholars to engage in ongoing reflection about the challenges, responsibilities, relationships, and processes involved in representing the lives of others. The scholar must surrender the hubris of the expert and […] become an empathetic partner in the work of the communities and projects she or he seeks to advance…” (p. 3)

In other words, we must be constantly aware of the responsibilities we have as documentarians, in recognizing our own locations and how that informs our own judgements, and how to conversely engage others without any trace of superiority. To be an “empathetic partner” is to suggest that we can allow ourselves to learn and grow beyond our own stereotypes and let our subjects speak for themselves.