- Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958–1977 by Joshua Glick
Joshua Glick. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018, 254 pp.
Despite the multitude of texts available on US film history, Joshua Glick’s Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958–1977 proves there is still much to be investigated in the timeline of America’s film production past. The acute specificity of Glick’s historical narrative makes his book a unique and necessary resource for understanding the evolution of Los Angeles documentary production, the works that were produced, and their impact on the formation of American identity.
Glick’s narrow exploratory space focuses on LA documentary production from 1958 to 1977 and spans the Kennedy to Reagan administrations, homing in on key historical moments: Kennedy’s New Frontier, the Watts uprising and aftermath, and America’s bicentennial, concluding with the 1984 Olympics in LA and its impact on documentary moving forward. [End Page 113] Amid the drastic industrial changes happening to major studios at the time, Glick uncovers an alternative film world operating in tandem with Hollywood and demonstrates how this brief period was deeply significant in shaping the way that documentary was utilized by those in power and those on the margins of society.
Within this time period, Glick cuts between the influential, Hollywood-connected Wolper Productions and various independent filmmakers. By following these two camps, Glick creates an ongoing dialectic between documentary works that pushed pro-capitalist ideals and US government agendas and those that strived to represent individuals and communities overlooked not only by Hollywood but also by news and documentary media.
The Wolper Productions thread provides insight into the type of documentary product that dominant mainstream media delivered to US television viewers and how works by this company helped shape individual American identity and the image of the country, domestically and abroad.
Chapter 1 covers Wolper’s work during the Kennedy administration, including pro-America, pro-government pieces, from The Race for Space, laden with Cold War messaging, to The Making of the President: 1960 and Four Days in November, documentaries that provided a way to mourn Kennedy’s death en masse, while mythologizing him in American history.
Chapter 4 returns to Wolper Productions and the public nosedive it took with a monstrous, sociocultural faux pas. The company’s pro-government, pro-capitalist documentaries were increasingly tone-deaf in the midst of burgeoning counterculture movements. To restore its fading relevancy, Wolper partnered with Twentieth Century Fox on the Hollywood biopic Nat Turner. However, preproduction publicity efforts incited anger from numerous groups across the nation who railed against the film’s insensitivity toward the black experience and its distortion of African American history. For this reason and numerous others, the film project ultimately remained unfinished.
By far the most intriguing part of the Wolper story is covered in chapter 5, which chronicles the company’s redemption with African American audiences through the documentary Wattstax. The collaborative project with Stax Records focused on the 1972 Watts Summer Festival, aiming to “weave concert footage with interviews and observational scenes of South Central . . .” (134). Wattstax was pivotal for Wolper Productions, particularly due to creative concessions it made for its client Stax; most significant was the agreement that Wolper would organize production but relinquish all creative control to the label, ensuring the community perspective that Stax aimed to reflect onscreen (135). The result is a documentary featuring earnest, raw perspectives without the typical Wolper propagandist coating. Wattstax salvaged Wolper’s credibility with minority audiences, repositioning the company as culturally sensitive, which benefited future projects. This is particularly evident in its success with Roots, the seminal docudrama produced for the US bicentennial celebration, examined in chapter 6. Following this popular television event, Wolper Productions continued to influence American historical narratives through docu-drama production and received the ultimate nod when David Wolper was appointed director of the 1984 Olympics’ opening ceremony.
Contrastingly, a wave of independent film-makers worked to counter dominant narratives produced by companies such as Wolper, by presenting critical examinations of American life on the margins. Chapter...