This article accompanies release of the Field of Vision film Concerned Student 1950, directed by University of Missouri students Adam Dietrich, Varun Bajaj, and Kellan Marvin.
IN NOVEMBER 2015, student protests at the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”) became a leading national news story. Led by a group of African-American students calling itself “Concerned Student 1950,” the campus protests were triggered by a series of racist incidents — including the university’s African-American student body president enduring racial epithets — and catalyzed by the hunger strike of graduate student Jonathan Butler.
As so often happens, the national media narrative focused on a highly selective sliver of those events, rendering the coverage misleading, distorted, and utterly lacking in nuance. A new documentary released today by First Look Media’s Laura Poitras-led Field of Vision, titled Concerned Student 1950, is the perfect antidote to those gaps. Filmed in real-time by three Mizzou juniors who had full access to the protest movement, the documentary enables viewers to observe how and why these students were galvanized to action, and to understand on both an intellectual and visceral level the rationale that drove them.
Shortly after forming their group, the students unveiled a list of demands, beginning with the resignation or firing of the university’s president, Timothy Wolfe, who had displayed contemptuous indifference for the rising levels of concern from black students about their own safety. Illustrative of American priorities, their movement became impossible to ignore — both in the national press and at the highest levels of university governance — when the university’s football players announced (with the support of the team’s coach) they would refuse to play their next game in solidarity with the protests, a move that could have cost the university $1 million for each game forfeited.
The protests were stunningly successful. Shortly after their commencement, Wolfe resigned. That a student movement so quickly succeeded in toppling the president of a major state university school system was stunning. The university’s proximity to Ferguson — the site of racial unrest a year earlier after the police killing of an unarmed black teenager — as well as its unique cultural composition as a bridge between North and South, rendered the protests and the racial tensions they highlighted illuminating and profound.
But those issues received relatively little media attention. Instead, the Mizzou protests became a vivid illustration of a bizarre media phenomenon: adult media pundits eager to insinuate themselves into campus controversies, usually on the side of administrators and against the students. Notably, what attracted national media attention was not the serious racial incidents on campus that went ignored, nor the remarkably effective student protest movement that was assembled based on passion, conviction, and courage. Instead, in the hands of media commentators, the protests became little more than the latest symbol of political correctness run amok, of college campuses coddling the excess sensitivities of delicate students who need to grow up and grow a thicker skin, all at the expense of free expression.
Some of those concerns were valid. In one notorious incident, a University of Missouri assistant professor supportive of the protesters, Melissa Click, was captured on video physically blocking a student journalist from filming a gathering of 1950 students as they celebrated Wolfe’s resignation; at one point, she called for “muscle” to help her physically remove the student. Overnight, Click was widely vilified as the poster child for free speech oppression on campus, and was ultimately charged with assault and fired from her position (in a Washington Post op-ed this week, she blamed her “mistake” on her “inexperience with public protests” and warned that her plight shows how widespread video surveillance can render a population averse to taking risks lest they become the targets of “public scorn”).
The Click incident grew out of an anti-media climate that emerged within the 1950 group. The protesting students, angered over what they regarded as unfair and inaccurate media coverage of their protests, harbored hostility toward the media, and thus attempted to create “media-free zones” where they would be “safe” from journalists. That they sought to block journalists — including those from student-run campus media — from operating in public spaces rendered critics’ free speech and free press objections legitimate.
But the Mizzou protests were far more complicated, and much more thoughtful, than the narrow caricatures created by national media commentators. This new 30-minute documentary, filmed in the cinéma vérité style that shapes Poitras’s own documentaries, allows viewers to observe the evolution of the protest movement in real time, and to judge for themselves what was at stake. The footage is riveting, powerful, and intense.
Regardless of one’s ultimate judgments about the legitimacy of these protests and the tactics they employed, Concerned Student 1950 will provoke all sorts of interesting debates and will almost certainly cause a re-evaluation of what you believe you know about this protest and similar ones like it on campus. It underscores how partial and misleading national media coverage can be. As one of the filmmakers, Kellan Marvin, put it in an interview with Field of Vision: “Documentary is very different from journalism, and it’s kind of re-learning everything I’ve come to think about what capturing real life should be.”
Journalists, especially when they write about people and environments with which they have little connection, can easily distort events to fit their pre-existing conceptions. That certainly happened in the case of the Mizzou protests. Watch Concerned Student 1950 to see how extreme some of those distortions were.
Read an interview with the film’s directors here.