for newyorker.com, | October 13, 2021

The Romance of American Activism in “Radical Love”

William Kirkley’s documentary follows a married couple working on behalf of the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and others during the nineteen-sixties and seventies.

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Michael and Eleanora Kennedy—a married lawyer-activist duo that was as committed to their ideals as to each other—understood the stakes of the controversial cases they took on to be nothing less than the notion of law itself.

It’s fitting that the house where Michael and Eleanora Kennedy made their life together was, in Eleanora’s words, a “fixer-upper.” They were accustomed to finding possibilities within severe, seemingly irreparable structural problems and seizing opportunities to stake out more habitable futures. For decades, Michael worked as a lawyer, with Eleanora close at his side, representing clients like the American Indian Movement, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the Chicago Eight, Los Siete de la Raza, and Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers, among others. The Kennedys—as committed to their ideals as to each other—understood the stakes of these controversial cases to be nothing less than the notion of law itself. “A radical is somebody who goes to the root,” the couple’s longtime friend Bill Ayers, a co-founder of the militant-left movement the Weather Underground, explains. “For a radical lawyer, the law is the field of struggle. It’s seeing the law as it is and imagining the law as it could be. The law could be fundamentally transformed, serving a more humane society.”

The new documentary “Radical Love” homes in on the Kennedys’ work during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, especially their collaboration with Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a fellow Weather Underground leader. Faced with the political and existential crisis of the escalating war in Vietnam, “we helped the Weathermen in any way we could,” Eleanora says, “legal or illegal.” The film emphasizes the dire atmosphere and real risk surrounding such acts of resistance as the Weathermen’s 1972 bombing of the Pentagon. Archival footage shows police beating young protestors, flinging them into vans, dragging their unyielding bodies down the street—scenes disturbingly reminiscent of recent demonstrations for racial and environmental justice in the United States. “American history is cyclical in this way,” Caroline Waterlow, one of the film’s writers and producers, told me; she was struck by all that the Kennedys and their cohort accomplished, but also by how much work still lies ahead.

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“Radical Love” does not romanticize activism, but love is undoubtedly at the film’s center. Eleanora recently told me that her relationship with her husband began with adoration at first sight. “Within three minutes of meeting Michael, I knew I’d walk barefoot on broken glass to spend the rest of my life with him,” she said. The two were married, against the wishes of Eleanora’s parents, in 1968, by a Methodist minister who, as a conscientious objector, would be jailed the next day. Activism “didn’t come naturally” to Eleanora, whose field was fashion, but with Michael as her “teacher” she took to it. “We were vulnerable with each other, so I trusted him,” she told me. “Our marriage was a verb. We lived together, worked together every day, and loved it. I felt there was joy in the struggle.” They shared with Ayers and Dohrn something like a familial kinship; a sense of mutual devotion, care, and community enabled subversive action even in dangerous circumstances.

Michael died in 2016, mere months after an interview with “Radical Love” ’s director, William Kirkley. Kirkley was working on a different project, about Michael’s former clients the Brotherhood of Eternal Love; what was supposed to be a two-minute conversation with Michael stretched beyond two hours, and from it emerged the idea to tell his and Eleanora’s story. “I’ve lived a phenomenal life,” Michael says in the film, “and what I loved about it most is: I was never afraid.” Eleanora hopes that the courage and conscience he taught her will also inspire a new generation to stand up for their rights and humanity. She told me that she believes “the history of fear is a political device, a device that controls people,” and that change comes through confrontation, not persuasion. The Kennedys’ efforts arose not out of extremism but, as they saw it, out of necessity. As Eleanora puts it, “Being a revolutionary is the way you live your life with respect for other people.”

After Michael’s death, Eleanora sold their “fixer-upper,” which the Kennedys had by then transformed into an iconic Hamptons estate. Though Eleanora feels unmoored now (“I have no home—Michael was home,” she told me), her great love is still with her, an indelible part of her political consciousness: “When I question if I have the strength to continue, he says yes. If I need the words to speak truth to power, if I’m faced with a choice between acquiescence and struggle—he’s there.”


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