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Film

Film Review: Hit and Stay

The Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine would spark a series of similar, Catholic Left-led demonstrations

Photo: William Morganstern, License: N/A

William Morganstern

Hit and Stay meticulously plots the devolution from a faith-driven movement to something else.


Hit and Stay

Directed by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk

Plays at the Charles Theatre Dec. 7 at 11:30 a.m., Dec. 9 at 7 p.m., and Dec. 12 at 9 p.m.

About 10 minutes into Hit and Stay, the documentary from erstwhile CP editor Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk, there’s an exceptionally striking black-and-white still that preserves a moment of Baltimore history. The photo, from Oct. 27, 1967, shows Father Philip Berrigan—a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, clad in priestly garments and a long, flowing black overcoat with a high collar—pulling open a drawer in a long row of file cabinets inside the Customs House near Baltimore Street, just off the Block. He looks down intently at the drawer’s contents, Selective Service records, and holds a bottle of Mr. Clean filled with a mixture of animal blood and some his own. Behind him, a bespectacled man reads from the Bible, a woman restraining him. Berrigan’s figure obscures another woman, rushing to stop him.

After he doused the draft records in blood—“anointing” them—he and his accomplices waited at the Customs House to be arrested. Berrigan, a Josephite priest, was joined by another Catholic, artist Tom Lewis, and two Protestants, writer David Eberhardt and Rev. James L. Mengel. They became known as the Baltimore Four, and with their nonviolent (albeit destructive) action, they laid the foundation for another radical anti-war demonstration by Berrigan and faithful protestors who became known as the Catonsville Nine, the centerpiece of Hit and Stay.

On May 17, 1968, Berrigan, his Jesuit priest brother Daniel, and seven others, including nuns and veterans, walked into the draft board office on Frederick Road; ignoring the clerks there, they collected the paperwork of 600 men, carried it into the parking lot, and lit up the whole lot with homemade napalm. Then they waited. Later, they would be convicted on various charges of destruction; some, including the Berrigan brothers, went underground, evading imprisonment, while others went to the clink.

The Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine would spark a series of similar, Catholic Left-led demonstrations—the Milwaukee 14, the D.C. Nine, the Chicago 15, the Boston Eight, and several others. The groups foreshadowed the actions of even more radical, secular groups, like the Weather Underground. Their tactics were far flashier than many other forms of protesting, but they were also more effective: The draft records destroyed had no duplicates; once burned or blood-stained, the information contained therein was lost, the men it listed unknowingly un-conscripted.

Berrigan and the organizers who followed in his footsteps helped to garner the attention of the media, the government, and the American people in the time of U.S. conflicts with Vietnam. And their stories remained powerful over time. Gregory Peck starred in a film adaptation of a play written by Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Various books have been written on the subject since the 1960s, and Tropea and Cyzyk’s effort is perhaps one of the most authoritative, with commentary from Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Bill Ayers. George Mische, a participant in the Catonsville Nine, wrote an article for the National Catholic Reporter this year criticizing several portrayals of the events. But he gave great praise to Hit and Stay, calling it “one of the most accurate depictions of what truly happened during this movement.”

The film succeeds the most in its comprehensiveness. For those who only care about an exciting narrative, it may stretch too long and become too dry, but the documentary meticulously plots the devolution from a faith-driven movement to something else—destructive actions committed with less accountability, more concerned with anti-corporate agendas. In an age where religion seems to be losing its relevance in a sea of commercialism, Hit and Stay demonstrates that wasn’t always the case.

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