Review: ‘Agents of Change’ Recalls an Untold Story of Student Activism (California Newsreel Releases)

April 20th 2017
agents-of-change AGENTS OF CHANGE Announced today, California Newsreel has picked up and released "Agents of Change," which won the Jury and Audience awards for Best Documentary at the 2016 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. For information about how to gain access to the film, head to California Newsreel's website.
Before the formation of Black Lives Matter, there was constant talk about my “lost generation” from those who came before us. According to them, millennials were lazy and self-centered since we’d never had to work for anything. We didn't know what it meant to protest and to stand up for our Civil Rights since that moment was well before our time. I suppose no one could have foreseen how police brutality and the advent of social media would collide, exploding and rippling ‬‬throughout the country. It never seemed puzzling to me; after all, young people have always been at the forefront of change across the globe. Youth provides the stamina to tuck in and stick with a cause for the long haul. The 1960's were such a tumultuous time in our country's historical framework that we often overlook the work done by student activists on college campuses. We are taught (if we're lucky) about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March On Washington. Except for the stories involving The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), student protests are often glazed over as a footnote in the history of liberation and Civil Rights. Or worst still, they aren't mentioned at all. Filmmakers Frank Dawson and Abby Ginzberg were students who actively participated in the April 1969 Cornell University protests that successfully reshaped how Black students were perceived on campus. As a result, the duo has a distinct and unique perspective of what occurred on that fateful morning Black students took over the Student Union, emerging with guns in hand a day later with the promise of a more robust and meaningful education. In "Agents Of Change," Dawson and Ginzberg take us back to their time at Cornell and travel across the country to assess the highly publicized and violent strike at San Francisco State University the year prior. As a Black woman who received her education at two predominantly white universities in the past decade, I cannot overstate how isolated I often felt. As the only Black woman to graduate from my undergraduate program my year at a University of 25,000 undergrads and the single Black person in my graduate program; I found it both exhausting and frustrating, especially when it came to voicing my opinions on specific topics. Still, since I attended college in the 21st century, I was given the opportunity to take classes on everything from Black women in slavery to Blaxploitation. Though my living spaces were often void of people of color, I took refuge in my Black professors and in the Africana Studies departments in my schools. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me that these options might not be available to me, had it not have been for students demanding these types of curriculum years before I was even thought of. Forty-five years ago, my predecessors were the first Black students to enter these institutions, and this was at a time when Black people were being firehosed and locked up, and our leaders were being slaughtered left and right. Set against photos of their younger selves, former San Francisco State and Cornell University students give sobering recounts of the events that led up to these massive protests. These incidents included being belittled by professors in class, and being reported for drug use in the women's dormitory because white students were not familiar with the smell of pressed hair. Dawson and Ginzberg made the brilliant choice of juxtaposing two very different universities on opposite sides of the country, one public and one private, both fighting for real change in the administration and curriculum so that students of color might feel safe in the institutions where they were being educated. "Agents Of Change" works well because it gets the information from the source, demystifying the narratives and photographs that we've seen in other documentaries or historical texts. In truly humanizing the protestors, the audience can get an accurate understanding of what drove them to hold these strikes and sit-ins. Since the film examines this untold story so eloquently, I was a bit thrown by the way the film opened and ended. Documentaries that have profoundly affected me throughout my life are visceral, providing in-depth knowledge about a subject I may have been unaware of. The way “Agents Of Change” opened and closed, did not fit the tone of the rest of the documentary; instead, it shifted away from the story, feeling instead like, educationally preachy bookends. With all of the significant history in the film, this sort of introduction and conclusion didn't feel necessary. It was an overdone reminder that this film would be a great companion piece to high school curriculum on the Civil Right’s Movement. The odd thing about history is that it often loops around again as if we've forgotten about the cracked heads and blood split for progress. Cuts in funding and racial tension that has been bubbling under the surface in the past decades have brought forth a new wave of student activists in my generation. What's so fantastic about Dawson and Ginzberg’s “Agents Of Change” is that it ties these two moments together, reminding us that if we’ve persevered before in the tumultuous era of the 1960s, we can certainly do it once more. Announced today, California Newsreel has picked up and released "Agents of Change," which won the Jury and Audience awards for Best Documentary at the 2016 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. For information about how to gain access to the film, head to California Newsreel's website. Watch a trailer below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: or tweet her @midnightrami
by Aramide A. Tinubu on April 20th 2017

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