On the Brink: The Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Progressive District Attorney

Activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s compelling new film, Beyond Bars, is a documentary about Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s left-leaning district attorney who was deposed by a recall campaign in 2022 after only about eighteen months in office. Through the frame of Chesa’s zigzagging backstory, Greenwald touches upon many pressing issues: mass incarceration, racism, grassroots political campaigning, the influence of big money in elections, childhood, parenting, and more. But the discerning eye will also discover that Greenwald—who helmed Hollywood’s 2000 biopic Steal This Movie about Yippie Abbie Hoffman—has now also directed a gripping elegy of the radical New Left.

Chesa Boudin is arguably the scion of America’s “First Family of the Far Left.” His grandfather was the renowned defense attorney Leonard Boudin, whose clients included Paul Robeson, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, peace activist Dr. Benjamin Spock, antiwar clergymen William Sloane Coffin and Philip Berrigan, and many others. Chesa’s mother and father, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were members of the extremist Weather Underground and were imprisoned for their roles in the Brinks armored car robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead north of Manhattan in 1981. 

With both parents incarcerated, their radical comrades, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers—the so-called “domestic terrorists” whom Sarah Palin claimed in 2008 had “palled around with” Barack Obama—raised Chesa. Chesa’s parents had left the toddler with a babysitter to participate in the Brinks heist to raise funds for the Black Liberation Army, since, as Gilbert dryly notes on screen, advocates of armed struggle “usually don’t get grants from the Rockefeller Foundation.” (Another perpetrator of the Brinks robbery, Mutulu Shakur, rapper Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, received a sixty-year sentence, but for some reason goes unmentioned in the film.)

Beyond Bars creatively goes back and forth in time, traversing Chesa’s trajectory as he evolves from a troubled child visiting his incarcerated mother and father at prisons to becoming politically engaged. However, unlike his birth parents and his adoptive parents, Chesa eschews their “by any means necessary” militancy—Chesa is no “Che.” He earns a law degree from Yale and embraces electoral politics. After stints working for San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office and law clerking, Chesa runs as a Democrat for District Attorney (DA) on a criminal justice reform platform. After a hard-fought, grassroots candidacy, Chesa upsets conventional wisdom, winning San Francisco’s close DA race on November 5, 2019.

The film flashes back to Chesa’s birth and his adoptive parents’ radical street-fighting youth. In a montage sequence of photos and clips dramatically set to “Yell Fire!” performed by Michael Franti and Spearhead, Greenwald shows (without necessarily justifying) why some of the era’s activists turned to armed resistance during the heat of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He also depicts the FBI’s Cointelpro counterinsurgency against African American activists, such as murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. 

A fiery young Dohrn declares there’s “no way to be committed to nonviolence in the most violent society ever,” while Ayers proclaims “6,000 people a week were killed by our government” in Southeast Asia. Through the lens of nonfiction, Greenwald presents the screen’s best examination of the roots of 1960s extremism since Jeremy Kagan’s memorable 1975 TV-movie Katherine dramatized The Weatherman, with Henry “The Fonz” Winkler playing a composite character suggested, in part, by Ayers. (Like Greenwald, Kagan also directed episodes of the 2005-2007 TV series The ACLU Freedom Files.)

The older and presumably wiser Boudin and Gilbert evolve and renounce the use of violence in pursuit of social justice, and also express what seems like sincere remorse for the deaths of the policemen and security guard during the Brinks robbery, plus deep regret for both of them, blinded by zealotry, leaving their son with a babysitter while they risked their lives, liberty, and their son’s well-being. A clip shows a flag-draped coffin borne by policemen at a memorial for the slain trio, but in a film chock full of original interviews, the officers’ and guard’s relatives are never shown speaking about how these deaths impacted them.

It’s worth considering that if all of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ ultra-left bombings and shootings by the Weather Underground, BLA, and similar organizations were combined, they wouldn’t come close to matching the firepower of a single typical U.S. bombing campaign in Vietnam. And while Boudin, Dohrn, Eldridge Cleaver, and others were imprisoned for their militant responses to Washington’s killing of millions of people in Southeast Asia, none of the U.S. war criminals such as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who perpetrated mass murder, ever served a day in prison. After being court-martialed for murdering twenty-two Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968, Lieutenant William Calley served only three days behind bars and house arrest for three years. 

As someone intimately acquainted with the hardships and horrors of imprisonment and the legal system, and as San Francisco’s newly minted district attorney, Chesa initiates reforms in a country “which has the highest incarceration rate in the world,” as Chris Hayes states in an MSNBC clip in the documentary. Chesa implements a diversion program for primary caregiver parents of minor children charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies which could lead to dropping charges if completed. Reform-minded Chesa eliminates cash bail, which is praised by Human Rights Watch, and cracks down on police brutality, which earns him the enmity of police unions—as well as of Fox News attack dogs like Tucker Carlson.

But the progressive DA was almost DOA. Condemned as “soft on crime,” recall campaigns swiftly sought to remove the reformist Boudin from office. According to Beyond Bars, “GOP major donors” contributed “$7 million” to unseat Chesa “so their investments can go up in value” in a city where rising crime and homelessness allegedly threatened their bottom line. On June 7, 2022, after only about a year-and-a-half in power, Chesa lost the special election, with 55 percent voting to remove him. Although Chesa is heard insisting “This is a movement, not a moment” during another montage with BLM demonstrators and liberals like musician John Legend, celebrity Kim Kardashian, and Los Angeles DA George Gascón, Beyond Bars doesn’t go beyond the recall; there’s no follow-up about what happens to the film’s protagonist.     

Nevertheless, Robert Greenwald has done it again. Greenwald has produced and directed Hollywood big-budget studio productions such as the 1980 Olivia Newton-John musical Xanadu and topical features and TV movies such as 1984’s The Burning Bed, for which Farrah Fawcett received a Best Actress Emmy nomination for playing a domestic abuse victim; 1990’s Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes; and 2003’s The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron

Packing a lot into ninety-eight-minutes, with its meditations on prison reform, activism, family, the New Left, progressive DAs, and more, Beyond Bars is one of Greenwald’s most heartfelt and finest films.

By 2002, Greenwald seemed to experience an epiphany and turned to making an astonishing series of lefty documentaries, starting with executive producing 2002’s Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election. After France’s student-worker uprising in May 1968, New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard co-created the Dziga Vertov Group to shoot films for the masses, but he instead created head-scratching works proletarians (and film critics) couldn’t understand. Greenwald, on the other hand, has found a formula for making easily accessible, socially conscious nonfiction productions including 2004’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; 2004’s Uncovered: The War in Iraq; 2012’s Koch Brothers Exposed; and many more.

Packing a lot into ninety-eight-minutes, with its meditations on prison reform, activism, family, the New Left, progressive DAs, and more, Beyond Bars is one of Greenwald’s most heartfelt and finest films, imaginatively uniting the personal and political. There’s also an evocative use of music, including “Doctor My Eyes” by Jackson Browne—a longtime movement supporter, including at fundraisers for The Progressive in California—and Tom Morello’s “Until the End.” 


Beyond Bars releases on February 12. For more info and the trailer see: https://www.bravenewfilms.org/beyondbars. You can also register to host a free screening: https://form.123formbuilder.com/6591824/beyondbars