To those born after around 1970, it has been hard to explain just how radical the late sixties and seventies were in America. The cultural clashes and gear-grinding of the era generated intense heat between the current and previous generations and fostered animosities that never faded. The so-called “Greatest Generation” and and “Silent Generation” were appalled at what the “Baby Boomers” were up to. For people whose memory doesn’t extend back that far, a master class in the period can be had by watching “Billy Jack.”
“Billy Jack” is a low budget indie film released in 1971 that perfectly captures the cultural and political themes of the counter-culture Boomer ethos of the time. Billy, played by itinerant actor Tom Laughlin, is a half-Native American Vietnam vet with serious martial arts skills who lives in the desert around Prescott, Arizona. When he isn’t doing spiritual Native American stuff, he’s defending the “Freedom School,” which is a hippy enclave of “kids” operated by Billy’s girlfriend.
The “kids,” some of which appear to be well into middle age, are regularly menaced by cowboy hat-wearing townie rednecks, and the rednecks get regular ass beatings at the hands and feet of Billy, until finally Billy executes one of them for raping his girlfriend.
The kids at the Freedom School are mostly nubile white females, plus a few older long haired males who play guitars, bang on drums, and do a little improve. There are a few minorities who are mostly portrayed as weak. One of the girls is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is. They have no formal curriculum and there no scenes of any descent at the Freedom School. They talk continually about peace while being defending by violent, angry Billy Jack.
The menacing townies, especially the son of the local Boss Hog, Bernard, are caricatures of an unenlightened establishment. Bernard is a horn dog who drives a Corvette, and he meets his end with a karate chop to the neck delivered by Billy. This murder is how Billy ends up holed up in a shack surrounded by cops at the end. He surrenders and his led off to jail as the kids raise their fists in defiance. They support Billy as a law unto himself.
In this little film, one can see virtually every strain of politics that is now mainstream in the USA, encoded in to both the government, schools, and reinforced throughout the culture. The Freedom School kids are in power now, and they have carried their ethos right in to the middle of America. This is where ‘woke’ came from.
At the end of the movie, Billy rides away handcuffed and in the back of a squad car, but in real life, Billy won big time. He started at the fringes of American culture in 1971 and rode relentlessly to the center.
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in “Billy Jack” with this wife, Delores Taylor, is gone. He died in 2013 and she followed in 2018. What they left behind, however, is an incredible cultural document of the times.