Review: ‘From the Hood to the Holler,’ starring Charles Booker

October 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Charles Booker in “From the Hood the Holler” (Photo courtesy of Double Exposure Films)

“From the Hood to the Holler”

Directed by Pat McGee 

Culture Representation: Filmed in 2020 and 2021, the documentary “From the Hood to the Holler,” which is mainly about Charles Booker’s 2020 campaign to become a U.S. senator from Kentucky, features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white and a few people of Asian heritage), who are mostly political progressives, discussing the campaign.

Culture Clash: Booker, who is a progressive Democrat, faced an uphill battle in the primary election to get the Democratic Party nomination, because his Democrat opponent had much more campaign money than he did.

Culture Audience: “From the Hood to the Holler” will primarily appeal to people who like watching political documentaries about progressive liberals or “underdog” political candidates.

Tanesha Booker, Charles Booker, Preston Booker and Earletta Hearn in “From the Hood the Holler” (Photo courtesy of Double Exposure Films)

Biographical documentaries about politicians during a political campaign often look like campaign promotional videos, but “From the Hood to the Holler” avoids that trap, by presenting a fairly well-well-rounded portrait of Kentucky politician Charles Booker. The movie doesn’t show him as an overly polished, slick political candidate but as a person with vulnerabilities who has not forgotten his humble roots and has overcome many hardships and people’s underestimations about him.

Directed by Pat McGee, “From the Hood the Holler” focuses on Booker’s campaign to win the 2020 Democratic primary election for the U.S. Senate representing Kentucky. Whoever won this primary would go on to the general election to try to defeat Mitch McConnell, a conservative Republican who has been a U.S. Senator representing Kentucky since 1985. Kentucky is a mostly Republican state, so any Democrat going up against a Republican in Kentucky will usually be considered an underdog.

People who follow U.S. Senate races already know the outcome of this 2020 primary election and general election in Kentucky. Booker (a left-wing, progressive liberal) was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary election by Amy McGrath, a U.S. Marines veteran and moderate liberal, who at one time had campaign funds that were nearly 100 times more than Booker’s campaign funds. In the general election, McConnell won over McGrath. Even people with a basic knowledge of U.S. politics probably know already that McConnell has been re-elected for every U.S. Senate term that he has decided to run for re-election.

Because the outcomes of the 2020 elections are already known, why would people need to see “From the Hood to the Holler”? It’s worth watching for anyone who is curious to know more about Booker and how he ran his 2020 primary campaign. The documentary is also a great example of how people can overcome seemingly impossible odds to achieve great things in life. “From the Hood to the Holler” is not a movie that’s intended to change political views, but the documentary does give an inside view of how a campaign works for the type of politician that Booker is.

Booker (who was born on October 20, 1984) is a lifelong Kentucky resident who was born and raised in Louisville’s west side, which is a low-income area populated mostly by African Americans. Booker, who is an only child, was raised by his single mother, Earletta Hearn, whom he gives credit for being his biggest supporter and earliest role model. (Booker’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

In the documentary, Booker talks about how his mother—who worked as a seamstress and is now an assistant pastor at Unity Church in Louisville—had financial struggles, and sometimes their home electricity would be cut off because they couldn’t afford to pay the bills. However, she always made sure that Booker was always felt safe, taken care of, and loved. Booker gets tearful when he tells a story about how when he was about 9 or 10 years old, he noticed for a few days in a row, his mother wouldn’t sit down and eat dinner with him at the table, as she usually would. When he asked her why, she kept making vague excuses.

But one day, he insisted that he tell her what was going on and why she wasn’t eating dinner with him. And that’s when she confessed that she wasn’t eating dinner with him because there was only enough food for one person. He says it was an important lesson he learned as a child about personal sacrifice and what it truly means to love someone. Charles says, “Seeing the sacrifices my mom made—and there were a whole lot of them—it gave me the conviction to do well.”

Growing up poor, Booker says that many people often underestimated what he could accomplish in life. Booker is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in political science and a law degree. He then went on to become the youngest African American to be elected as a Kentucky state representative, when he served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, representing the 43rd district, from 2019 to 2021.

In the documentary, Booker comments on how coming from west Louisville affected people’s perceptions of him in law school: “Apparently, I was on this list of students who they [some of the school’s faculty and administrators] were not expecting to make it.” Booker says he knows about these negative expectations because some of his supportive professors told him that’s what people were saying behind closed doors. One of these supportive professors refused to be like his pessimistic colleagues, and he gave Booker these words of encouragement: “I want you to prove them wrong.”

Booker’s decision to run for the U.S. Senate also had a lot of skeptics and naysayers. His wife, Tanesha Booker, admits that she initially was one of the naysayers who didn’t think it was a good idea for Charles to have this campaign. However, she and Charles say that he changed her mind when he outlined his plan. And a big part of the plan was that, win or lose, he wanted voters—particularly those who are working-class and middle-class—to think differently about which politicians really have their best interests at heart and who would be better representatives for them in the U.S. Senate.

Tanesha comments, “I knew he could do a great job.” At the same time, she says, “I know that politics is dirty, and they’ll drag you through the dirt.” Jason Perkey, a political consultant for Charles, comments on this 2020 U.S. Senate campaign in Kentucky: “I think Charles had his mind made up. I think Charles had decided that he wanted to start a movement.”

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, says in the documentary that, just like Charles Booker, she has been “poor, working poor and the barely middle-class … It centers you in a way that’s different from anyone else’s life experiences, especially if you don’t lose touch with your roots. It makes you understand from a visceral perspective: What you do matters.”

Charles (who has Type 1 diabetes) says in the documentary that there was a time when he was younger that he couldn’t afford to get more insulin. He began to ration the insulin until it ran out, and his body began to shut down, such as he temporarily couldn’t walk or lift his arms. His wife Tanesha says she didn’t know about his insulin shortage at the time because Charles kept this secret well-hidden until he couldn’t keept it a secret any more.

Tanesha says that if she had known earlier, she would’ve found a way to get the money for the insulin that he needed. Charles doesn’t tell this diabetic story with a “poor me” attitude but to give an example of how he made the mistake of letting his pride get in the way of his health and to share with people that he knows what it’s like to be unable to afford necessary medical treatment. The documentary shows many examples of why his image as a politician who is relatable to many working-class and poor people is genuine and not manufactured.

Charles opens up about how his family has been devastated by gun violence and how it has affected what he wants to do about gun violence as a politician. He says that his cousins were like siblings to him. And when his cousin T.J. was murdered by gun violence in 2016, “It changed everything for me … Since then, I’ve had four cousins murdered [by gun violence] after him.”

As a political candidate, Charles has a platform that reflects his progressive liberal beliefs: He advocates for Medicare for All, a universal basic income (in other words, a minimum wage that is enough to be a living wage), legalization of marijuana, pro-choice family planning laws on federal and state levels, stricter laws related to gun violence, and more legal accountability in police brutality cases. Most of all, he says: “My platform is to end poverty.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that his political role models include Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and Jesse Jackson.

During his campaign, the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor (who was shot to death in March 2020, while sleeping in her bed in her Louisville home) became a major flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement that rallied many people around the world to protest against police brutality. Unlike his Democratic opponent McGrath, Charles participated in many of these street protests in Kentucky and other places. Charles says the killing of Taylor was personal to him because he and some of his family members knew her.

In the documentary, Charles says of Taylor’s tragic death: “I felt like I was reliving the murder of my cousin T.J. again.” Dr. F. Bruce Williams, pastor of the Bates Memorial Baptist Church in Louisville, comments in the documentary: “Breonna Taylor is a reminder of the feeling that no matter what your circumstances are as a black person, you can’t count on the criminal justice system to give you justice.”

One of the highlights of “From the Hood to the Holler” is a scene showing how Charles was able to de-escalate the anger of an agitated crowd protesting the police shooting death of David McAtee, an 53-year-old unarmed African American man who was killed during a Louisville street protest in the early-morning hours of June 1, 2020. McAtee’s dead body lay on the ground for several hours, and that infuriated a lot of protestors. Charles was able to get the protestors to stay calm, and he reminded them to show some respect when McAtee’s family arrived to claim the body.

“From the Hood to the Holler” has a lot of expected political campaign footage, such as rousing speeches and the candidate doing meet-and-greets with voters. Unlike many politicians who never quite look comfortable mingling with working-class people, Charles shows an ability to connect with people from many different backgrounds, in a way that that doesn’t look forced or phony. It’s probably one of his biggest strengths as a human being.

“From the Hood to the Holler” also doesn’t go down a tacky and mean-spirited route of constantly bashing Charles’ political opponents, although Charles does make sure to let voters know why he thinks people should vote for him instead of McGrath or McConnell. His political messages have themes about unity, rather than creating more divisions among people. At the same time, Charles doesn’t try to play down his identity as an African American Democrat in Kentucky, a commonwealth that is populated by mostly white Republicans.

A repeated theme in the campaign is that working-class and poor people of any race or political affiliation have more in common than they think they do. Charles presents himself as a candidate that is better-qualified than McGrath or McConnell to represent the interests of working-class and poor people who are often overlooked by politicians who want to chase after big-money donors. “From the Hood to the Holler” shows Charles going to working-class places “off the beaten path,” where politicians usually don’t go in their campaigns.

The documentary also shows the political realities of how Charles was able to diversify and increase his political supporter base and fundraising when more celebrities began to publicly support him. He was endorsed by several progressive stars from the Democratic Party, such as Bernie Sanders (who makes a brief appearance in the documentary), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren. He also got public praise from entertainment celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross, Ava DuVernay and Tessa Thompson.

But celebrity endorsements often aren’t enough when a candidate is underfunded. “From the Hood the Holler” mentions that three months before the June 2020 primary election, McGrath had raised $29.8 million in campaign funds, while Charles had raised $317,000. Several times in the movie, Charles describes himself as an everyday man for the people and someone who is not likely to be corrupted by corporate donors, compared to his big-money opponents. “From the Hood to the Holler” also mentions the challenges of campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest shortcoming of “From the Hood to the Holler” is that it does not have enough political diversity in the types of people who are interviewed in the documentary. Almost all of the people interviewed fall into one of three categories: progressive liberal politicians and activists who support Charles Booker; his campaign workers; and his family members. The documentary could have used broader perspectives, including interviews with a few of his critics.

However, the movie shows a good balance of who Charles is as a compassionate and charismatic politician and as a loving and humble family man. At the time that this documentary ended filming in 2021, he and his wife were expecting their third child. Their third child, a daughter named Justyce, was born in August 2021. Charles and Tanesha also have daughter named Kaylin (born in 2007 or 2008) and a daughter named Preston (born in 2016).

Other people who are interviewed or featured in “From the Hood to the Holler” include Kentucky state representatives Attica Scott, Joni Jenkins, Nima Kulkarni; AFL-CIO Kentucky vice president Ashley Snider; Laborers Local 576 president Neal Cotton; Sunrise Movement COO Erin Bridges; Sunrise Movement co-founder Evan Weber; Sunrise Movement creative Alex O’Keefe; Charles Booker’s cousin Kim Woods; author/poet Hannah Drake; and civil rights activist/Showing Up for Racial Justice founder Carla Wallace. The Charles Booker campaign workers who are interviewed include senior political advisor Taylor Coots, campaign manager Colin Lauderdale, deputy campaign manager Shanté Wolfe and campaign strategist Kelsey Hayes Coots.

Another documentary highlight is a sequence showing what happened behind the scenes on the primary election day (June 23, 2020). Tensions were running high with voters who lined up for hours at the only in-person polling place in Kentucky’s Jefferson County (where Louisville is located), only to have the doors locked at 6 p.m., instead of the usually 9 p.m. closing time. (The movie’s opening scene is footage of voters banging on the locked doors and demanding to be let inside so they can vote.)

Charles and his campaign team were able to get a judge to extend the voting hours at this polling place from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., but the documentary makes a point of reminding people that about 95% of the polling places in Kentucky were permanently shut down before the 2020 primary elections. It’s difficult to know what the outcome of certain elections would have been if these polling places had not been permanently closed. These shutdowns led to accusations of voter suppression, an ongoing issue in many parts of the United States.

The end of the documentary shows Charles saying that he’s thinking about running for U.S. Senate in 2022. And his opponent would be Rand Paul, a conservative Republican who has been a U.S. Senator representing Kentucky since 2010. As many people already know, Charles won the Democratic primary in this 2022 U.S. senator race, making him the first African American to achieve this milestone in Kentucky. “From the Hood to the Holler” shows that, win or lose, Charles is a formidable and passionate politician to watch.

Double Exposure Films released “From the Hood to the Holler” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 30, 2022.

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