Crisis, a political documentary showing history in the making

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, directed by Robert Drew, is a political cinéma vérité documentary that invites the audience to co-create the meaning of this historical moment.

Vivian Malone and James Hood leaving Foster Auditorium after registering for classes at the University of Alabama. ©Adams Robert, Alabama Department of Archives and History

Do you think you would be able to recognise a historical moment from a regular event if you were given a chance?

In June 1963, Robert Drew, along with other filmmakers such as D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, had the privilege of filming the different angles of the conflict relating to the judicially-mandated racial integration of the University of Alabama. They were granted access to key areas, allowing the audience to see the different sides of the matter. The film’s first half is centred on the attempt to register Vivian Malone and James Hood at the University of Alabama as the first two black students. The other half shows Katzenbach, Assistant Attorney General, attempting to enrol the students, Governor George Wallace’s opposition, and subsequently President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy’s response to the encounter as they both watch it on television.

This hour-long film-like documentary is said by some to be the first in America to introduce the concept of cinéma de vérité following the French movement of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. Simply put, this type of documentary highlights the subjects hidden behind reality. During the two days of filming, before and after the university integration debacle, five camera crews were scattered to the conflict’s critical areas, including US President John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office and the homes of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Alabama Governor George Wallace. As a result, we can see the different primary figures of the conflicts as more than just political figures. We see them as fathers and husbands; it humanises them. One scene that embodies this idea is when one of RFK’s young daughters, visiting him at work, sits on his lap while he is on the phone with Katzenbach. Unknowingly, this scene was filmed on both ends, and we can see Katzenbach’s severe features softening when speaking with the little one. 

“an astonishingly intimate look at Kennedy and his brother…. The politics and personalities remain fascinating, and so does the filmmaking.”

Alessandra Stanley, in a 2003 article in The Times’ Arts section, called “Crisis”

When watching the crosscut footage between the various characters, it is not hard to notice the dramatisation effect of the documentary. Cutting from one place to another builds up the suspense and retains the viewer’s attention. Not only that, it allows the public to have time to think of the previous shot they saw, allowing them to fester an opinion on their own. 

What can be seen as a basic political documentary nowadays was a first at the time, garnering a controversial label in the journalistic sphere back then. As much as The Times attacked the White House for showing “the private deliberations of the executive branch” and turning them “ [. . .] into a melodramatic peep show.”, the documentary is still considered a milestone in film journalism. 

You can watch the trailer on YouTube

Mariama. C

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