The promo for Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech made it clear that controversial professor Ward Churchill would be receiving the hero treatment in the HBO documentary -- and last night's debut of the production didn't disappoint in that respect. The final cut allowed Churchill to essentially narrate his own story, and like him or loathe him, there's no denying that he's a gripping personality. Scenes featuring his big voice, forceful demeanor and no-retreat attitude, framed lovingly by filmmaker Liz Garbus, gave viewers a taste of what it must have been like to share a courtroom with him in his largely successful improper-dismissal lawsuit against the University of Colorado at Boulder this past April.
Garbus wasn't interested in objectivity. She's an advocacy documentarian, so while she offered occasional snippets of anti-Churchill rhetoric from the likes of conservative barnburner David Horowitz, she also presented the case against the prof as a vast right-wing conspiracy whipped up by the likes of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization linked in an on-screen graphic to liberal enemies such as Lynn Cheney and Joe Lieberman. The real bogeyman, though, was Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who, according to Churchill, featured attacks on him for approximately forty consecutive shows.
This good-versus-evil dichotomy didn't try to convince those who'd written off Churchill as an anti-American that he was actually a defender of all that is good and true about this great nation of ours. In the Churchill segment and others, Garbus spoke to the progressive base, not extreme conservatives or the folks occupying the ideological middle. Nonetheless, Shouting Fire provides precisely the sort of boost Churchill needed going into a reinstatement hearing scheduled for July 1. He may not get his old job back -- although there's a very real possibility he will. Either way, however, get used to seeing and hearing from him. Because he's not going away.