This Tuesday, May 4, marked the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings -- a commemoration extremely prominent on-campus and in-state, yet seemingly below radar nationwide. It's entirely possible that current news items like oil spills and car bombs knocked the event off the front page. Indeed, approaching Fire in the Heartland, the new documentary by Daniel Lee Miller, may come with the kind of trepidation that prompts one to say, "Oh, God, that again?" Are the deaths of four students from four decades ago still relevant? Coming on the heels of the site of the shootings' recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places, Fire in the Heartland makes a convincing case that the answer is yes.
I should admit upfront that I'm not the most unbiased observer (Miller and I are professional acquaintances) and that I saw a rough-cut of the movie in a fairly impressionable milieu (the Kent Stage, with a large crowd of aging yet still boisterous activists). But I found Fire in the Heartland an effective attempt to delineate an exceedingly complex chain of events -- or at least one that does so from a specific point-of-view. Most documentaries on this subject give the impression that the shootings came out of thin air; they also often make a feint at objectivity by adding a National Guardsman or two to the rotation of talking-heads. Miller, though, begins the story in the years leading up to 1970. He also interviews almost exclusively former SDS and BUS members, a stronger tack in the first half of the film than the second.
The terrific opening hour of Fire in the Heartland offers the clearest answer I've yet seen to the question, "Why Kent State?" In sum, it happened there due to a young activist movement that developed gradually out of northeast Ohio's blue-collar roots. The tension between a large university campus (over 20,000 students) at the center of a small town became fractious and rife for misunderstandings. According to Miller, the events of 1970 were precipitated by a pair of crucial events: the 1968 walkout by Black United Students (BUS) in protest to the racist Oakland, CA police being allowed to recruit on campus; and the 1969 "takeover" of the Music and Speech Building by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when interviewee Chic Canfora recounts having heard the dire news on the radio while in actuality trapped in a classroom and pondering what to do next: "Wow," she remembers marveling, "I've taken a building!"
So much time is spent on supplying context that the actual events of May 1-4, 1970 go by surprisingly fast. My guess is Miller wanted to sidestep the iconic images and overly familiar information that the shootings have produced. (He succeeds with this elsewhere too: for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the death of Robert F. Kennedy, he avoids the stock visuals and soundbites.) While the voices are informed and effective (among them wounded students Tom Grace and Alan Canfora), after awhile they all begin to sound the same. I'm not saying the filmmaker needed to trot out a token Guardsman or townsperson who might offer a counter-perspective; his sympathies are clearly with the students (having been one himself), and I don't mind subjectivity as long as it's clear-eyed. Miller certainly offers that. But he misses an opportunity to show something that's little known: those who experienced the shootings first-hand frequently differ among themselves as to what happened and why.
Fire in the Heartland stumbles in a few other areas. Although it's commendable to see more attention than the norm devoted to the African-American perspective (BUS warned its members to avoid the rally on that day, certain that the Guard's guns were loaded and that they would be inviting targets) as well as the shootings that occurred ten days later at Jackson State, I'm not sure it's necessary to fill the soundtrack with Marvin Gaye and the theme from Shaft every time a black face appears onscreen. Much of the music is too omnipresent and loud. Far more elegant is Miller's layering of images: I really liked, for example, how the protest-as-a-lark vibe from the Music and Speech incident carries over into the carnival-like atmosphere on the Kent State campus prior to the killings. Additionally, he reveals an empathy that stops short of sentimentality. When Mark Rudd, notorious 60s hellraiser (see The Weather Underground for a fine documentary about his involvement with the radical SDS splinter-group The Weathermen), speaks in glowing terms about his first visit to Kent -- "I was born and raised in New York City," he says earnestly, while images of cows on farmland whir by, "and I found northeast Ohio very exotic" -- it gets a knowing laugh from the audience. Yet the humor isn't derisive. Rather, for all the violence that was wrought back then, it distills a touching innocence and purity that lasted right up to when the shots were fired.