The Activist

This one’s a genuine find, a priceless rediscovery, and a locally sourced treasure. Screening at Pacific Film Archive on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. as part of the series “Activate Yourself: The Free Speech Movement at 50,” The Activist could just as easily have been featured in one of my occasional ‘Locally Grown Produce’ columns if not for the fact that, until very recently, I’d never heard of it before.

Briefly released to theaters in late 1969 and since largely forgotten, this was director/writer/producer Art Napoleon’s final film. Napoleon – whose previous work, including the 1950s TV series ‘Whirlybirds’ and the Fabian vehicle Ride the Wild Surf (1964), displayed next to no political consciousness — immediately gave up cinema for psychotherapy and relocated to Europe in the wake of The Activist‘s poor critical and box-office reception.

The film’s title refers to main character Mike Corbett, a Berkeley senior suspended nine units short of his degree because of his dedication to radical politics. Played by real-life activist Mike Smith (one of the Oakland Seven put on trial for ‘conspiracy to commit two misdemeanors’ stemming from October 1967’s Stop the Draft Week demonstrations), Corbett is a true believer who earned his stripes as a Mississippi Freedom Rider.

Even true believers, however, need love and compassion, and Mike finds both in the form of fellow student Lee (Lesley Gilbrun), who shelters him from the police one evening. Lee soon becomes part of the movement, helping churn out leaflets (providing an interesting but too brief reflection on the old-fashioned sexism of radical politics) and accompanying Mike as he drives the colorful Stop the Draft bus around campus and downtown Berkeley.

The Activist culminates in remarkable scenes shot around the Oakland Induction Center, the focal point of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in late 1967. Napoleon clearly went to great lengths to recreate the 4,000 strong demonstration that attempted to shut down the Center in mid-October, blending fictional and newsreel footage into in impressive montage of swirling action.

Shot around the same time as Changes, The Activist’s roots are sunk deeply in the Berkeley soil. There’s Lower and Upper Sproul, Telegraph Avenue (including guerrilla theatre outside Cody’s Books), Bancroft Way, the Greek Theatre, and a Southside neighborhood where director Mike Ritchie’s parents (!) play a middle-aged couple unhappy about the Stop the Draft bus.

While the film is clearly not a major studio production, it holds its own. Considering Smith was no actor, he’s surprisingly good throughout (though it must be noted that his dialogue was re-dubbed by Napoleon’s son Josh), and no-one in the cast embarrasses themselves. The print is excellent, its bright colors intact despite the passage of time. Even the folk song reliant soundtrack holds up pretty well.

Meanwhile, here in the 21st century, it’s clear things haven’t changed much. Radical movements are still divided by internecine warfare and arguments over tactics, while the police still stand ready to apply beat-downs as required when the people of California declare an unlawful assembly. The Activist can be viewed as nostalgia if you wish, but its also a reminder that much of our physical and political landscape remains just as it was almost half a century ago.

As an added bonus, Michael Smith will be in attendance at the screening.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...