TV Review: American Experience: Blackout (2015)

Title: Blackout
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.

This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson.  There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness.  The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.

The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city.  All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.

On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary.  They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city.  Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies.  There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.

I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story.  A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop).  Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.

Rating: ***1/2