By Andrea Chase
If there is a turning point in The Boys Who Said No!, it’s when a judge, decidedly not a part of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, rules that a Vietnam War draft resistor should not go to prison for breaking the law. It is also a turning point in the history of the United States, albeit one far less high profile than the unrest and assassinations that dominated that era. And that is fitting in Judith Ehrlich’s enlightening and absorbing documentary that profiles the eponymous young men who used non-violence in their refusal to fight what they considered an unjust war. Successfully as it turned out. It makes for a film that speaks to the present as eloquently and as urgently to its audience as the resistors did to their audiences 50 years ago.
The most famous images of the resistance may be the public burning of draft cards by men who loudly stated their names as they did so, thereby inviting the government to prosecute them. The penalties were harsh for such an act, involving fines and imprisonment, not just for burning the cards or sending them back to the Selective Service that had issued it, as most of the resistors did, but also for not carrying it on one’s person at all times. If you could not produce it on demand, you could be arrested, even if you were not called up to fight.
Ehrlich meticulously traces the origins of the movement within the anti-war protests and juxtaposes footage from that time with contemporary interviews with those who were at the forefront of the resistance movement. They were not running away from the war, rather they questioned the justice of the Vietnam War, and refused to take part in it, including acquiescing to the draft laws. She also gives a sense of turbulence and uncertainty of those times when a new consciousness was rising, and the status quo was being challenged on every front.
There is no better summation than how Ehrlich opens her film. First, Lyndon Johnson speechifying about his resolve to win the war in Vietnam, followed by Martin Luther King fearing that we are losing our soul. As we hear King’s resonant voice, we see what people saw on their television every night on the news, images of the war itself and villages burning, piles of dead bodies, and terrorized non-combatants fleeing the carnage. When we then hear David Harris, Randy Kehlar (who directly impacted Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers), Bob Eaton, Cleveland Sellers, and Joan Baez talk about how they came to their decisions to protest, we have the context, and it is visceral. Sellers and Baez also connect the Civil Rights movement to the resistors, both in its sense of seeking justice for the people of color being asked to fight for a country that did not recognize their equality, and in its use of non-violence.
If the turning point of the film that non-sentencing of a resistor, its heart is a quietly momentous conversation between Harris and Mark Rudd, a member of the Weather Underground and advocate of violent revolution. Spoiler alert. One of them has undergone a philosophical conversion. It is the way they speak respectfully to each other, though, that is what encapsulates this film’s decidedly optimistic tone about a dark time. And it is the way they listen. This is not just polite discourse; it is productive and empowering for both the participants and the viewers.
The Boys Who Said No! celebrates the power of the word. From the flyers that were handed out at draft boards to the cadences of King during the March on Washington, to how word-of-mouth can turn out thousands to protest injustice in an age before social media, its power to effect meaningful change is undeniable. Then and now. If the resistors did not force the government to acknowledge the injustice of the war, they did succeed in irrevocably turning the tide of public opinion and forcing a cease-fire. It is too important a lesson to be forgotten. And The Boys Who Said No! is too important a film to be missed.
The Boys Who Said No! is the Closing Night Film at the United Nations Association Film Festival on Sunday, October 25, 2020 and can be viewed from noon to 11:59pm. Virtual tickets can be purchased here.
A “Meet the Filmmakers” discussion of “The Moral Compass” will feature several directors including Judith Ehrlich and Joan Baez who will receive the UNAFF’s Visionary Award. This virtual panel starts live at 6pm PDT on Sunday. It can be viewed anytime until 11:59pm. Order your place here, FREE.
The Boys Who Said No! was a sold-out Opening Night selection at the Mill Valley Film Festival and won the “Audience Favorite Documentary Award.”
Theatrical distribution is currently being strategized.
The film’s website offers background information, valuable resources, several clips from the movie, and you can sign up to be notified of future screenings and learn how to host a screening.
The Facebook page is a good place for up-to-date news and announcements.
Andrea Chase has been reviewing movies on radio, television, in print, and via the internet in the San Francisco Bay area for over 20 years. She says, “After moving here from Louisiana many years ago, I received my film education the way nature and the Lumiere Brothers intended–in movie theaters, both the mainstream venues that showcased the latest from La La Land, and the art houses that were more numerous in days gone by. They gave me a thorough grounding in current and classic cinema from all over the world and from the silents to the latest cutting edge Hong Kong flick.”
She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle, as well as the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and has been heard on non-commercial syndicated radio since 1996, and on British Forces Broadcasting throughout the world. Currently, she is the Movie Chick on KGO-Radio’s Maureen Langan show, her series, Behind the Scenes, is part of PRX.org with over 350 episodes, and she contribute reviews to The New Fillmore. Both Rotten Tomatoes and the MRQE link to her site, KillerMovieReviews.com, making the world safe for film lovers since 2002 with reviews and interviews. She recently reviewed The Artist’s Wife for EDF.