April 27, 2019
by Carla Hay
“A Day in the Life of America”
Directed by Jared Leto
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.
Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto, who is also the lead singer/songwriter of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, has been steadily building a portfolio of interesting work as a director—beginning with Thirty Seconds to Mars videos, and progressing to the award-winning 2012 documentary feature “Artifact” (which chronicled the band’s fight to get out of its contract with EMI Music) and the non-fiction digital series “Beyond the Horizon” and “Great Wide Open.” The documentary “A Day in the Life of America” is his most ambitious directorial project so far. Inspired by National Geographic’s “A Day in the Life” book series, the documentary is a fascinating mosaic of people in the United States, all filmed on a single day: July 4, 2017. Leto solicited video footage from the public, but the majority of what made it into the final cut of the movie is footage that was professionally filmed by the 92 camera crews that Leto dispatched across the United States to capture everyday people on Independence Day. The documentary is also a companion piece to Thirty Seconds to Mars’ 2018 album “America.”
Because we’re living in an era where millions of people have put their video diaries on the Internet, one of the documentary’s biggest accomplishments is that it takes all of that type of noise and shapes it into an eclectic and riveting symphony of varied human perspectives. Not all of it is easy to digest. There are so many contrasting viewpoints expressed in the documentary, that people watching this film are bound to see things that will make them angry, sad, offended, entertained, hopeful and inspired. The movie’s top-notch editing, seamless cinematography and compelling Thirty Seconds to Mars music score all contribute to making “A Day in the Life of America” an engrossing cinematic journey. The movie does not interview political pundits or news commentators to give their distracting opinions. The people in the movie are not identified by name when we see them talk. It’s a wise decision, because what everyday people have to say in this movie is more important than the possibility that anyone could become a star by being in this film.
“A Day in the Life of America,” whose main scenes are shown in chronological order, begins with a pregnant woman going into labor during a home birth. During the course of the documentary, viewers hear from a wide variety of people from just about every region of the United States. In Arkansas, two drunk redneck men fire assault rifles in the air, and complain that white Americans are a dying breed. In California, a porn actress is shown working on the set of one of her movies and talks about how much she loves her job. In New York, a Hasidic trans woman shares her experiences of what it feels like to be discriminated against in and outside her religion. In West Virginia, a young, white single mother who’s addicted to meth smokes the drug on camera, and expresses shame and guilt for not being a good parent. In Texas, a gay black man at a skating rink expresses his thoughts on LGBTQ rights and the ongoing fight to be accepted in the same way as heterosexuals.
On the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., people who are gathered at the Capitol Building range from Donald Trump supporters to anti-Trump protesters. Trump and wife Melania are shown greeting the crowd outside the White House. Speaking of Trump, his administration’s Muslim ban—and people’s contrasting views about it—are given notable screen time in this movie.
For many viewers, the most emotionally triggering aspect of “A Day in the Life of America” is the movie’s raw look at racism. In North Carolina, male and female members of the Ku Klux Klan are shown planning for a race war and spewing hatred against people who aren’t white and Christian. In Louisiana, African American adults talk about how there are two Americas: one that gives more privileges to whites and one where people who aren’t white still have to struggle to be accepted as equals. Meanwhile, the black kids in the Louisiana footage express more optimism about the future, saying that America represents freedom to them.
One of the movie’s effective devices is how contrasting viewpoints are edited right next to each other. After the KKK members from North Carolina are shown ranting that immigrants are ruining America, the next footage shows Native Americans in South Dakota celebrating their heritage. In another scene, there’s a ceremony where people are becoming U.S. citizens. The next scene is of white nationalist American Freedom Party members gathered for a meeting and talking about how they want their own country so they can have stricter laws against immigration. There’s a scene with people dressed as Revolutionary War-era Americans during a patriotic ceremony in Virginia. That footage is followed by a scene of a Muslim teenage girl in a boxing ring talking about how she won a hard-fought legal battle for her right to wear a hijab while boxing.
The documentary also takes a searing look at crime in America, particularly in how crime disproportionately affects black people. In Chicago, black residents in a working-class neighborhood express fear and sadness on the Fourth of July when they can’t tell if they’re hearing fireworks or gunshots. During filming, police arrive because a boy got shot. (The shooting is not in the movie.) In Detroit, young black residents on the streets are jaded and pessimistic about their future. In Oklahoma, a black man in prison (the details of his criminal record aren’t mentioned) talks about not getting justice and feeling like he’s invisible.
Health care is another big issue that’s covered in the movie. Tennis player Sebastien Jacques (who recovered from a life-threatening brain tumor) is shown in Kansas during his Walk Across America campaign to promote hope in dealing with health problems. That footage is in contrast to the next scene that shows a bed-ridden man dying from cancer.
Of course, it’s impossible for one movie to capture all the subcultures and issues that exist in the United States. For example, the wealthiest “one-percent” of people in America are noticeably absent from the film’s featured interviews. It would have been great to include the perspective of a self-made billionaire—not necessarily someone who’s famous, but someone who represents what is often described as the ultimate American Dream. Even though the super-wealthy aren’t really given a spotlight as a contrast to all the poor and middle-class people who highlighted are in the movie, “A Day in the Life of America” does a fairly comprehensive job of capturing a great deal of the contemporary diversity that exists in the United States. Simply put: “A Day in the Life of America” just might be the most honest documentary about the United States that could be released this year, because it’s the collective voices of people in America speaking their truths.
UPDATE: PBS’s “Independent Lens” series will premiere “A Day in the Life of America” on January 11, 2021.