Steve York’s “A Force More Powerful,” a bland and historically evasive survey of non-violent political movements in the 20th century, is the sort of dull yet socially wholesome fare that often finds misguided favor in the docu universe. Despite considerable archival research that unearthed some fascinating newsreel footage of non-violent direct actions in 1930s India, 1960s Tennessee and 1980s South Africa, the potentially dramatic accounts of unlikely grassroots efforts come across with all the excitement of watching paint dry. After a brief theatrical stay for Oscar qualification, pic, partially funded by pubcaster WETA, will retire to its appropriate home on PBS.
Premise argues that non-violence has been a more effective tool for social and political change in this century than warfare and employs three historic examples to buttress its case. Filmmakers thus make assumption from the top that viewers will tend to agree with their argument and they will only need living examples to prove their point.
This ignores what is perhaps the central lesson of this century, in which frequently savage assaults on human life and dignity by both fascism and communism were halted only by the force, or threat, of warfare. “A Force More Powerful” simply ignores these central events, and along with them the fact that non-violence is an all but hopeless strategy in a totalitarian state and can only work in quasi-democratic societies where at least a degree of accountability exists. Filmmakers’ approach lends docu the quality of an agenda-driven project rather than a worthy historical document.
Initial example is Mohandas Gandhi’s titanic efforts to peacefully erode British colonial rule of India. Gandhi’s success in bringing full rights to Indians living in South Africa serves as a prelude here and exemplifies how he developed his shrewd non-violent tactics. Plentiful B&W newsreel footage of the tiny, scrawny man draped in a simple, white cotton garment as he leads thousands of fellow Indians on a strike against British control of the salt market is nicely edited and paced, though it’s unfortunate that we’re unable to hear Gandhi speak. Strategy of forcing one’s opponent to also act non-violently, or else risk appearing like a brutal oppressor to the international community, is the linchpin in Gandhi’s stunning triumph.
Rather than document the celebrated American example of non-violence when Martin Luther King, in homage to Gandhi, led a march in Selma, Ala., to protest bus segregation, York looks at a lesser-known 1959-60 case of student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., led by the Rev. James Lawson. Striking images include young black and white students confidently walking to these direct actions at dime store diners, but little is shown of what must have been an angry white racist backlash. Lawson, like Gandhi, succeeds with a blend of religious faith and discipline, which only underlines the notion that non-violence is a calling that not all people are capable of following.
More cursory documenting is done in the finale, which attempts to show how non-violence functioned in the oppressed townships of South Africa during the 1980s. Focusing on the Port Elizabeth township and the struggle led by activist Mkhuseli Jack, doc has a difficult time sustaining interest while sorting out the massively complex South African political landscape. Filmmakers fail to examine the uncomfortable fact that national hero Nelson Mandela was the voice of the so-called “armed struggle” movement of the African National Congress, going so far as to dubiously argue that such non-violent strikes, marches and boycotts as led by Jack were more instrumental in defeating the apartheid regime than were Mandela and the ANC.
Talking heads segments are standard, but docu is most harmed by a soporific Ben Kingsley, whose narrating voice often turns pic into a boring, slanted history lesson.