‘The Five Demands’ Review: Occupying a College for Racial Justice

Among the wave of student protests that occurred across American university campuses in the late 1960s, the student occupation of The City College of New York in April 1969 was a highly local yet pivotal act of civil disobedience. The more than 200 Black and Puerto Rican students who occupied the buildings on South Campus for two weeks did so in protest of the school’s admissions policy and the lack of diversity in its student body. At a time when 40 percent of New York City’s high school graduates were Black or Latino, the film reports, only 9 percent of City College attendees were part of those communities. “The Five Demands,” a new documentary from Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, returns to the campus 50 years later alongside former students, now in their late 60s and 70s, who participated in the protests.

In interviews, City College alumni who were recruited through the college’s SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) recall being underprepared in their education and made to feel like tokens who didn’t belong there by their white peers. And indeed, the “five demands” central to the occupation largely revolved not only around making efforts to admit more students of color, but also to provide them with adequate support once they were enrolled — a commitment that many elite colleges and universities still struggle with to this day.

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision that rejected affirmative action, the film feels eerily timely. Schiller and Weiss’s direction is utilitarian, cutting together talking-head interviews with montages of the occupation set to era-appropriate protest songs. But to its credit, the lack of flashiness puts the students’ struggles for racial justice front and center, and ultimately serves to highlight a less-remembered aspect of the countercultural student movement.

The Five Demands
Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes. In theaters.

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