Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno’s documentary, originally broadcast on PBS, details the violent riots that destroyed much of Newark, New Jersey, during July 1967. The root of the upheaval was an isolated act of police brutality – two white cops beat a black taxi driver following a minor traffic infraction, which resulted in the driver being hospitalized. Rumors spread around the city that the driver died, which sparked off a rampage where many in Newark’s black community looted and destroyed white-owned businesses.
The film, unfortunately, seems to justify this action by claiming the white business owners routinely ripped off black customers – although the connection between police brutality and dubious commerce doesn’t quite connect. Nonetheless, the ferocity of the riot overwhelmed Newark’s police, resulting in the arrival of state police and New Jersey National Guard troops. But this aggravated the problem, particularly when incompetent National Guardsmen routinely fired their ammunition indiscriminately at housing projects.
While the media of the era blamed the violence on Newark’s black population, subsequent investigations found law enforcement escalated the chaos by firing off 13,000 rounds of ammunition during the five days of unrest (civilian gunfire accounted for a paltry 100 rounds).
The film calls on witnesses to the event, including political activist Tom Hayden and playwright Amiri Baraka (who was arrested and assaulted by Newark police), to talk about what took place. However, the film’s heavy reliance on talking head commentary becomes monotonous, and its odd habit of interrupting the story to present quickie history lessons on what created the racially hostile atmosphere becomes annoying and distracting.
The film deserves credit for recalling an incident that many people would sooner prefer to forget, but its sloppy presentation dilutes its value to the historical record.