When the camera began to roll on Hampshire College’s campus in 2019, neither its filmographers nor its subjects had any idea what would happen. The newly minted president of the school had just abruptly and conspicuously announced that the college was in dire financial straights, would be seeking a strategic partner immediately, and would be heavily considering not admitting a new freshman class. These events precipitated into what would become the longest sit-in in American college history as students and faculty alike ignited in protest over the potential end of their beloved university. Enter: The Unmaking of a College, the documentary directed by Amy Goldstein, chronicles the events of this historical protest from the inside.
Trust me, this is a good documentary; it’s inspirational and aspirational in an age of increasing youth activism. But I need to start with what started off poorly, because the first 20 or so minutes of the film were difficult to get through. It starts with a jarring shouting match between a Black student and the white, rich New England archetypal president. The student shouts what seems like a totally random jab at her and instantly muddles the argument the protesters are trying to make. They have a very specific (sort of) set of demands. They want to be included in the decision-making process, they want their school to remain independent, and they want a new freshman class enrolled.
But by starting with a complete nonsequitur, I could have been quickly mistaken into believing that the students were a disorganized group with no real direction, or even that their protest was over racial injustice, given the specifics of the non sequitur. Not to mention that one of the lead protestors is rather smarmy and the film never takes the time initially to give any real explanation as to what the students and faculty are demanding. It only offers context for much of its first third. It’s good context, but in neither the recorded pieces, the interview segments, nor on-screen text is that an attempt to explain the specific resolutions they are looking for in sitting in in the president’s office.
Do not let this poor opening and lack of clear explanation fool you though. The remainder of The Unmaking of a College makes clear the student’s intentions and does a great job the rest of the way through providing both further context and telling the narrative of the protest as it unfolds. It features the voices of students and faculty from an array of backgrounds and experiences, making it abundantly clear that this was a movement most of the school’s population supported. It also really showed how much Hampshire College means to its attendees and faculty.
Hampshire was established specifically to exist outside of the typical college mold. It is often the home to students who would feel out of place or have a harder time succeeding at other more typical institutions and has been a beacon of free thought and protest for students and faculty for decades. Among its famous alumni, of which there are many, including Ken Burns, who takes a prominent role in The Unmaking of a College and attributes his career very specifically to his attending Hampshire. The film also does well to include voices from experts in the field of running a college, former board members, and even somebody who was initially on the wrong side of the president’s endeavor.
The inclusion of some of the interview subjects helps to paint the president in a kinder light than most of the folks directly involved would have painted her. Whereas they would be quick to malign and demonize her, others tried to make clear that they believed she was simply somebody who was handed several bad deals, got in over her head, and let pride and ego prevent her from getting out of the way when she no longer had control of the situation. It’s not that the subjects of protest always need or deserve humanization, but in this instance, it was good to see that the protests weren’t made out to be about her personally when it was never about her personally, it was about the decisions she and others around her were making. I also appreciate that a number of faculty partook in the interviews (and protests). It makes it clear that this was not simply a student movement—it was a student-led movement.
By the end of The Unmaking of a College end, I was quite invested. I got really emotional watching the finale unfold, thanks especially to the strong direction and editing of the final third. While it took me longer than it should have to gain sympathy with the protestors and understand what they were even protesting, once its rocky start settled in, it was a well-made documentary on a subject that can hopefully provide insight into what to do, and what not to do, in protesting in any context, not just college campuses.
The Unmaking of a College is now playing in select theaters.
The Unmaking of a College
- Rating - 7/107/10
By the film’s end, I was quite invested. I got really emotional watching the finale unfold, thanks especially to the strong direction and editing of the final third. While it took me longer than it should have to gain sympathy with the protestors and understand what they were even protesting, once its rocky start settled in, it was a well-made documentary on a subject that can hopefully provide insight into what to do, and what not to do, in protesting in any context, not just college campuses.