Review: ‘The Grab’ (2024), starring Nate Halverson, Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman

July 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Nate Halverson, Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman in “The Grab” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Grab” (2024)

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Some language in Nyanja and Bemba with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary “The Grab” features a predominantly white group of people (with some Africans and Asians) discussing the international competition to control the world’s food and water.

Culture Clash: Certain countries have been aggressively buying up farm land and food companies in other countries as a way to get world domination. 

Culture Audience: “The Grab” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries that are indications of where geopolitics will be headed.

Mallory Newman and Nate Halverson in “The Grab” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Grab” is a riveting documentary that chronicles a searing investigation of geopolitics. It’s a vital look at how international competition to control food and water should be taken as seriously as the competition to control weapons of mass destruction. In many ways, “The Grab” could make a case that this control of food and water is much more dangerous than control of weapons of mass destruction because of the implications of which nations would have the most power if the world experiences a shortage of food and water.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “The Grab” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. “The Grab” is the last documentary released from Participant Media, the production company that was founded in 2004 and shuttered in 2024. Participant Media had several fiction and non-fiction movies that were Oscar nominees and Oscar winners. Participant Media’s Oscar-winning documentaries included 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” 2009’s “The Cove” and 2016’s “Citizenfour.”

“The Grab” follows an investigation by three journalists from the Center for Investigative
Reporting (a non-profit media outlet based in the San Francisco Bay Area), as they expose the often-covert international competition to control food and water. This journalist trio is led by Nate Halverson, who began the investigation and later recruited Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman to help.

Halverson is shown doing the majority of the interviews (in person or by videoconferencing), while Schwartz and Newman do a great deal of the research. His journalist style is persistent without being too pushy. Newman is also assertive and has more experience than the quieter Schwartz. All three journalists show compassion and empathy for the average people who often are used as pawns in the various countries’ powerful political moves.

In the documentary, Halverson says the original question that he and other people wanted the answer to was: “Is another country making moves to control America’s food supply?” Halverson and his Center for Investigative Reporting colleagues went down a rabbit of information and soon found out that this issue was much more widespread and deeper than just controlling America’s food supply. In an early scene in “The Grab,” Halverson comments, “This project has kept me up at night more than any of my other investigation reporting projects combined.”

During the investigation, Halverson and his colleagues came into possession of several classified/confidential documents that were leaked to them by unnamed whistleblowers. Over 10,000 of these documents (which Halverson calls “The Trove”) are internal communications from Frontier Resources Group, founded by former mercenary Erik Prince. also founded Blackwater U.S.A., a mercenary group that he sold to go into the resource acquisition business.

The investigation named Frontier Resources Group as one of the biggest companies that profits from selling American farm land and U.S.-based food companies to foreign countries. Russia, China, and Saudia Arabia are named as the three of the countries that have been the most aggressive in taking ownership of land and companies that are rich in food and water over the past several years—not just in the United States but in many other parts of the world.

“The Grab” interviews several experts who have been studying or have firsthand knowledge of these geopolitical moves. “Food is a very obvious and central way to wield power,” says Molly Jahn, professor of agronomy and Laboratory of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jahn is also program manager in the Defense Sciences Office at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Rod Schoonover, a former U.S. senior intelligence officer of the National Intelligence Council, comments on the possibility of World War III happening: “That doesn’t sound improbable to me.” Even if World War III doesn’t happen, the increasing number of natural disasters happening all over the world, in addition to the world’s population getting larger, have made it inevitable that there will be more competition for food and water. Access to affordable food and water can be used as ways to control populations of people.

“The Grab” shows several examples of these gradual takeovers and how an alarming number of people who work for these companies have no idea that these acquisitions are intended to for the foreign countries to amass power and control of the world. That’s because these takeovers are often purchased by mysterious companies (which are often shell companies listed as limited liability corporations, or LLCs) that have offshore accounts that are difficult to trace.

In 2013, the Chinese government (under the name WH Group Ltd.) acquired the American company Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. This acquisition is named in “The Grab” as an example of the hide-and-seek deals where certain information is deliberately withheld from the public. In 2013, C. Larry Pope (Smithfield’s then-CEO) testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry that even though the Chinese government purchased Smithfield, the company would continue to do the same business as usual. Pope retired from Smithfield at the end of 2015.

However, Halverson came into possession of an internal WH Group Ltd. a document book manual detailing the financials of the Smithfield deal and how WH Group plans to make sweeping changes at Smithfield. The manual explicitly says that the information in the manual cannot be distributed in the United States. In “The Grab,” Halverson has a meeting with former Smithfield CEO Pope to show him these documents. Pope is astonished. Pope’s reaction is either sincere, or he’s a very good actor.

In “The Grab,” Halverson mentions that Saudi Arabia is running out of water to fuel its wheat export business. As a result of this water shortage, Saudi Arabia has been buying U.S. farm properties that have enough water to export to Saudi Arabia and can make enough hay to export to Saudi Arabia to feed the cows in Saudi Arabia. The costs of all this exporting to Saudi Arabia are outweighed by the profits in the areas that benefit from this exporting.

“The Grab” travels to La Paz County, Arizona, where an unnamed Saudia Arabian company has taken over one of the largest farm properties in La Paz County. “The Grab” has interviews with La Paz County residents John Weisser and Wayne Wade, who both report that their wells have run dry after this takeover. Weisser says, “There’s not enough rain to replenish it.” Wade comments on the water shortage in his well: “Pretty soon, there won’t be anything to take.”

Also interviewed is Holly Irwin, Arizona County Supervisor for La Paz County, who is shocked when she sees proof that her county’s residents are experiencing a water shortage in their wells that are apparently being depleted by the Saudi Arabian company. But there’s nothing she can do about it because it’s legal. That’s because Arizona is largely unregulated when it comes to foreign countries taking over Arizona-based businesses.

Africa is another place where the foreign takovers of farm land is thriving. It’s explained in “The Grab” that African farmers are especially vulnerable because they often don’t have deeds to the property that has been in their families for generations. Ethan Cousin, a former executive director of the World Food Programme, says about foreign countries’ takeover of land in Africa: “You can go around the continent and find different groups that prey on deprivation.”

One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is how it shows the civil rights work of attorney Brigadier Siachitema of the non-profit Southern Africa Litigation Centre. Siachitema represents several African farmers in land ownership cases where the farmers otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford attorneys. Felix Tomato and Febby Kalunga are among the farmers in Zambia who are interviewed by Halverson, who also interviews Siachitema.

They talk about white farmers who are funded by mysterious LLCs (many of which are traced back to China) that are displacing African farmers from their land. It’s another form of colonization. But compared to African farmers in previous centuries, today’s African farmers have more legal resources to fight back against these takeovers. It’s an uphill battle for many, but media coverage has made it possible for more people to find out about this problem.

That media coverage was apparently enough of a threat to get journalists Halverson, Schwartz, Newman and “The Grab” filmmaking crew detained at the airport in Serenje, Zambia, during a 2021 trip filmed for this documentary. In the detention room, the journalists see their names on a listed posted on the wall. Ultimately, this group was told to leave the airport because they were told that they were a “national security threat.”

Halverson says in the documentary that Russia is a country that is benefiting from climate change because of the way that Russia is hoarding resources in case of massive natural disasters. Victor Linnik, president of Miratorg (Russia’s leading meat-producer and supplier) says in the documentary that Miratorg recruits American cowboys to teach Russians how to be better farmers and ranchers. Todd Lewis, an American who used to be a manager for Miratorg, says in the documentary that he was hired in about 30 minutes during a phone interview.

Linnick says that food will become more powerful than weapons for world domination: “In the future, for Russia, the driver will be agriculture. We want to feed the world.” It’s mentioned in “The Grab” that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine (which is rich in farm land) is part of this strategic plan. Halverson comments on Miratorg’s recruitment of American cowboys: “This was a decision that came from [Russian president Vladimir] Putin.”

Other people interviewed in “The Grab” are former CIA officer Robert Mitchell; Maria Otero, former undersecretary of the U.S.; Lee Gunn, former naval inspector general of the U.S. Navy; Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute; former mercenaries John Gartner (founder of OAM International) and Simon Mann (founder of Executive Outcomes); former private military contractor Sean McFate; Robert Young Pelton, author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places”; Hongzhou Zhang, author of “Securing the Rice Bowl: China and Global Food Security”; Andriy Senchenko, former Ukraine deputy chef of staff; and Edward Hargroves, co-founder of Goldcrest Farm Trust Advisors, which sells water to United Arab Emirates.

“The Grab” tackles these complex issues and makes them easy to understand for the average person who might not be knowledgeable about international politics. The sheer scope of the information uncovered could easily be put into documentary series. But as a documentary feature film, “The Grab” doesn’t get too cluttered and skillfully focuses on certain compelling examples. By also showing the behind-the-scenes work of the investigative journalists who took many risks to bring this information to the world, “The Grab” doesn’t lose sight of the intensity of the work and the sacrifices that are made when journalists expose unsettling truths that people need to know and will affect us all.

Magnolia Pictures released “The Grab” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 14, 2024.

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.

Review: ‘American Gadfly,’ starring Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery and Mike Gravel

January 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Oks, Mike Gravel and Henry Williams in “American Gadfly” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“American Gadfly”

Directed by Skye Wallin 

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, California, Detroit, Iowa, and Miami in 2019 and 2020, the documentary “American Gadfly” features a mostly white group of people (with some Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy and who were connected in some way to Mike Gravel’s U.S. presidential campaign.

Culture Clash: Gravel, who was a progressive Democrat, made the unconventional decision to have teenagers run his presidential campaign.

Culture Audience: “American Gadfly” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching documentaries about “progressive liberals” pretending to be “anti-establishment,” but these “anti-establishment progressive liberals” engage in very establishment and elitist practices to promote themselves.

Henry Magowan, David Oks, Henry Williams and Elijah Emery in “American Gadfly” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

There’s a memorable line in The Who’s classic 1971 hit song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that says, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” That’s the feeling you get from watching the self-congratulatory political documentary “American Gadfly,” when it comes to so-called progressive liberal Democrats acting a lot like the conservative Republicans they claim to be against.

It’s a very gimmicky, one-sided documentary about smug, teenage left-wing Democrats who came up with the idea to steer the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign of Mike Gravel, a self-described progressive liberal Democrat who was a U.S. Senator from Alaska from 1969 to 1981. They admit up front that their main goal wasn’t for Gravel to win the election but just to get Gravel in the Democratic Party primary debates.

If you know who made it onto the debate stages during that election race, then you already know if Gravel’s campaign failed in this goal. Gravel dropped out of the race in 2019, the year that the majority of this documentary was filmed. The movie’s end-credit scenes shows footage from 2020, when former members of the campaign team did video chats with Gravel during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.

Most of the teenagers who were running Gravel’s campaign were 17 to 19 years old at the time this documentary was filmed. Gravel gave the teens complete control over his social media accounts, where they posted everything under his name but using their own words. (The documentary shows plenty of these tweets and some Twitter reactions to these tweets.)

The teens whom Gravel put in charge of his campaign preach progressive politics but then don’t include any females, black people and Latinos in their campaign leadership. The teens give sanctimonious rants about Donald Trump’s rude campaigning, yet the teens do their own smear campaigns and vulgar insults against opponents too. The hypocrisy is disgusting.

“American Gadfly” (directed by Skye Wallin) is also a “bait and switch” documentary. The film tries to make it look like Gravel is the documentary’s main attraction, but Gravel actually doesn’t get as much screen time as he should, even though it’s his political campaign. Gravel is shown having only a few meetings with these teenagers whom he put in charge of the campaign. He treats them like students who were assigned a pet political project.

Gravel is edited in the movie as someone who occasionally checks in to voice his opinion. If you believe what’s in “American Gadfly,” he was a supporting player, not a leader, in his own political campaign, and the teenagers were really running the show. Gravel is never seen making personal appearances to the general public on the campaign trail.

Gravel doesn’t even make frequent video messages where he speaks directly to his supporters. Instead, his teenage campaign team concocts memes and amateurish promo videos about Gravel that they spread on the Internet. And then they complain that mainstream media won’t take the campaign seriously.

Gravel’s main claim to fame is being the first U.S. politician to put the Pentagon Papers on public record, when he read them out loud during his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds in 1971. He ran for U.S. president in 2008, and he made it to the presidential primary debates, but he ultimately dropped out of the race. Barack Obama got the Democratic Party nomination and won the election. Gravel was a Libertarian from 2008 to 2010, before going back to being a Democrat in 2010. Gravel died of multiple myeloma in 2021, at the age of 91.

It’s obvious from the beginning of this documentary that the teenagers were using Gravel as a “guinea pig” to get some experience working on a presidential campaign to further their own political ambitions. They knew that their ages and school commitments would be a big reason why they wouldn’t be accepted as campaign workers for a candidate who had a real shot of getting the Democratic Party nomination, so they chose a long-shot candidate instead.

The three guys who take most of the credit for convincing Gravel to run for U.S. president in 2019 are Henry Williams, David Oks and Elijah Emery, who all come from upstate New York. Williams is the biggest talker in the group and the one who apparently wrote most of the angry insults directed at Gravel’s opponents. Most of the Gravel campaigners’ vitriol was not aimed at Republicans but at Democrats whom they call “establishment Democrats,” such as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg.

Oks is a self-described political nerd who’s the chief strategist of the Gravel campaign team. Emery is the most even-tempered and logical of the three, but Oks and Williams say behind Emery’s back (but in on-camera interviews) that Emery is too “idealistic” for the fiery brand of politics that Oks and Williams want to shove in people’s faces. Because Emery was in high school during the campaign, he wasn’t able to travel as much as Williams and Oks.

Three other members of the campaign team are featured in the documentary, but they don’t get as much screen time as Williams, Oks and Emery. Henry Magowan is the group’s treasurer. (The documentary never details now Gravel’s campaign money was spent.) Alex Chang is in charge of digital strategy. Jonathan Suhr is director of design. Chang and Suhr are both Asian and the only people of color chosen for this campaign leadership.

The decisions on who would lead everything in the campaign is basically a teenage version of an “old boys’ club.” Throughout the documentary, these so-called teenage progressive liberals from Generation Z proudly claim that their generation is going to shake things up and change politics by making everything more diverse and inclusive. And yet, they have absolutely no self-awareness of how bad they look in representing true progressive causes, by reverting to the same elitist “old boys’ club” mentality that they claim they want to change.

Needless to say, only males are invited to the Gravel campaign meetings where Gravel discusses his proposed policies and agendas for America. The Gravel campaign platform included Medicare for all; universal health care; paid family leave for all; eliminating the electoral college by having popular votes decide elections; legalizing marijuana in all U.S. states; decriminalizing prostitution; and making it a law to have equal pay for equal work. The documentary never shows or tells Gravel’s plan for how the U.S. government would pay for all these sweeping reforms.

The teen campaigners spend a lot of time bragging about how many “likes” and “retweets” they get on Twitter, and how many people they can reach on social media. And so, there is absolutely no excuse for this campaign team to have no females (who are 51% of the population in the U.S. and in the world) in any campaign leadership roles. And they can’t use the excuse that they couldn’t find any qualified females because these teens admit that they themselves are unqualified and inexperienced in this type of political campaign. If you want to know what male privilege and male entitlement look like, look no further than the Mike Gravel campaign team in “American Gadfly.”

You can’t expect to have credibility in policy issues about diverse representation when you can’t lead by example. Imagine being represented by a “progressive” politician who doesn’t seem to care that only males are leaders on his campaign team and that the gender representing the majority of the nation’s population is nowhere to be found in the campaign leadership. It’s beyond appalling.

Gravel obviously didn’t care enough about this blatant gender imbalance because he says in the documentary that his biggest complaint about how the teens were running the campaign was how they used the “f” curse word in their social media postings. Likewise, the “American Gadfly” filmmakers also didn’t notice or didn’t care to question why only males were the leaders of this campaign team. If this obvious sexism was addressed at any point by anyone in the documentary, it never made it into the movie. The people who are most likely to turn a blind eye to this hypocrisy are people who live in this type of hypocritical bubble.

At one point in the movie, Williams travels to California to meet Gravel in person for the first time. Oks can’t attend, but in his place, he sends a campaign worker named Benjamin Church, who is accompanied by someone named Rosaline Qi, who’s introduced as Church’s girlfriend. Over a meal at a restaurant, another young Asian woman is also seated at the table in this meeting with Gravel, but the documentary doesn’t explain who she is and what she’s doing there, as if the filmmakers think these young women don’t really matter at all.

How do we know that the filmmakers don’t care about these young women? Except for Qi saying hello to Gravel, these young women are not shown speaking at all during this conversation. In fact, women of color are nowhere to be found as important workers who were chosen for this campaign. This gross lack of diversity is like something you’d see in a campaign for a politician with a racist and sexist agenda.

Williams even has the tone-deaf arrogance to preach in the documentary about those who are oppressed: “It’s going to be poor people. It’s going to be minorities and immigrants—the same people who will always suffer if Trump is re-elected.” Meanwhile, the documentary shows these egotistical teens doing absolutely no personal outreach at all to the “oppressed” communities they claim to want to represent in the campaign. The teenagers seem to care most about hobnobbing with political insiders when they get invited to political events, or hanging out in restaurants with other privileged young “progressives.”

It’s not nitpicking to bring up these issues, because progressive liberals are the ones who complain the most and the loudest about the lack of diversity in American political leadership. Progressive liberals are the ones who push the hardest for laws against discrimination on the basis of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, disability, etc. But sometimes, there are people involved in politics who claim to be progressive liberals but who do not practice what they preach. The people they choose to put on their teams are not diverse at all.

A lot of “American Gadfly” is about Gravel’s all-male teenage campaign leaders approaching political campaigning as if insulting other candidates on social media (especially Twitter) is the most effective way to campaign. It’s the same political strategy that Trump used in his presidential campaigns, but these teens have such a “holier than thou” attitude, they can’t even see how much they sink to the same crude levels of the politicians they think are beneath them. These teens claim to be doing things better than politicians who are “old” and “elitist” when they’re using the exact same tactics as “old” and “elitist” politicians.

And these teen campaigners essentially boast about all the online bullying and childish name-calling that they dump on politicians whom they dislike. John Delaney is a particular target of their wrath because he was the Democratic candidate in the presidential campaign who had the closest (very low) polling numbers to Gravel. Delaney was therefore Gravel’s biggest obstacle to getting a place in a primary debate, which was limited to the top 20 candidates in Democratic National Committee-approved polls. The teen campaigners proudly take credit for getting “DropOutDelaney” to briefly trend on Twitter, but in the end, this fleeting Twitter meme didn’t help Gravel’s campaign.

However, there’s still some delusional egotism among these teen campaigners, because Suhr says in a campaign meeting: “What I’m hearing is that we’re an influencer’s influencer.” If you know how Gravel’s campaign turned out, then you’d be rolling your eyes at that statement. Influencing what? How to look like hypocritical left-wingers who act like petulant, “old boy network” conservatives?

Ironically, for a campaign team that did not include any females in leadership roles, the only Gravel political competitors who showed Gravel’s campaign any real support were two women: Democratic presidential candidates Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. Much of the documentary is about the Gravel campaign team’s race against time to get 65,000 individual donors to the campaign, which is one of the Democratic National Committee’s requirements to be eligible for a presidential primary debate. Gabbard and Williamson (and some of their campaign staffers) also take the time to personally interact with Oks and Williams on the campaign trail.

Oks and Williams end up begging Gabbard and Williamson to help by asking Gabbard and Williamson to enlist their supporters to donate to Gravel’s campaign. Gabbard and Williamson graciously accommodate the Gravel campaign’s requests. Andrew Yang, another Democratic presidential candidate, shows some curiosity and interest in Gravel’s teen campaigners (who gush over him like fanboys), but ultimately Yang chooses not to give the Gravel campaign any real support.

Gravel actually told the teens to not associate the Gravel campaign with Yang, because Gravel says in a conference call that Yang’s proposed idea for the U.S. government to give $1,000 to everyone in the U.S. is “just crazy.” However, the teens are so dazzled by Yang, they ignore Gravel’s order to keep their distance from the Yang campaign. They try to ingratiate themselves with Yang, with the hope that Yang would lend his support to Gravel’s campaign. This effort backfired, and it’s an example of how Gravel’s teen campaigners didn’t respect Gravel’s authority and wanted unchecked power in this campaign.

“American Gadfly” is a perfect example of why so many people don’t respect certain “progressive liberals” who pompously lecture how they think they know what’s best for the United States and the world but don’t apply what they preach in their own lives. Some of these “progressive liberals” have a severe lack of racial diversity in whom they choose to have as friends, or whom they choose to hire if they’re in a position to hire people. This hypocrisy doesn’t apply to all progressive liberals, but it certainly applies to the “stars” of “American Gadfly.”

These teenagers rant against Donald Trump and conservative Republican politics. And yet, the documentary shows Williams, Oks, Emery and Magowan giddily asking conservative Republican politician (and former U.S. presidential candidate) Rick Santorum to pose for a photo with them, when they randomly see Santorum on the street and approach him almost like star-struck fans. It’s a moment where these young campaigners show that they care more about being close to establishment power than staying true to so-called “anti-establishment” progressive beliefs.

Gravel has such little interest in making personal appearances in front of his supporters, when Gabbard invites him to go to Miami to be in the audience of one of the presidential debates for the Democratic candidates, he gives his two tickets to Williams and Oks instead. It isn’t until after Gravel drops out of the race that he’s seen at any political event in this presidential race, when he goes to San Jose, California, to attend a rally for fellow progressive Bernie Sanders. Gravel ended up endorsing Sanders in this presidential race.

One of the many flaws of “American Gadfly” is how it doesn’t acknowledge this basic fact of politics: Social media cannot completely replace in-person campaigning. That’s why it looks so superficial and silly that these teenagers think it’s a big deal that comedian Sarah Silverman retweeted a comment that was made on Gravel’s Twitter account, when the campaign comments on that account were not written by Gravel in the first place. Twitter followers don’t mean much to a politician running for an elected office if most of those “followers” can’t or won’t vote for the politician.

The documentary shows major red flags that these teen campaigners are out of their league and completely inept when it comes to political campaign strategy that doesn’t involve the Internet. While some members of the team go to Iowa to do some “campaigning” (without Gravel, of course), Williams says: “I don’t know what shaking hands with brewsters in Iowa actually means, or if it corresponds to any serious political movement.”

Oks tries to cut the trip short and says, “If we were running a real campaign, I guess we’d be going around [meeting people in] Iowa. I wouldn’t really enjoy it.” Emery seems to understand that a politician who won’t campaign in person won’t be taken seriously and won’t go far in the race, so he comments to Oks: “What if people just enjoy talking to people they represent?”

Oks responds sarcastically, “What if people just enjoy hammering things into their legs?” Emery replies to Oks’ idiotic comment by saying, “Those are two different things.” They end up cutting the trip short out of frustration over lack of public interest in Gravel’s campaign. Once they get out of the bubble of the Internet, they have trouble handling the reality that campaigning in person is lot more work than they’re prepared to do.

It should be noted that Oks and Emery had this conversation while waiting at a politically liberal bookstore to give a talk about the campaign, but this speaking engagement is never shown in the movie. If they did go through with this speaking appearance, then the turnout was probably very low. Otherwise, it would’ve been in the documentary. So much for “widespread support” from social media followers.

In fact, there is absolutely no evidence in this documentary that Gravel would’ve been able to attract an impressive crowd in this campaign if he campaigned in person. That’s why the social media angle for this documentary is completely overrated. On the campaign trail, a few random strangers congratulate Gravel’s teen campaigners when these strangers find out who they are, but that’s about as much public recognition that they get from people in real life (not social media) who are not campaign workers.

Even how these teens approached Gravel to run for president shows they’re from a generation that can’t fully understand what it was like to communicate before the Internet existed. Williams says that they had to look up how to write a memo to get Gravel’s attention because they didn’t know what a memo was. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Oks was accepted to Oxford University, while Emery was accepted into Cornell University. It makes you wonder how what kind of high school education they had for them to be so ignorant about what a memo is or what a memo looks like.

“American Gadfly” is so insistent and narrow-minded in its agenda to make these teenagers look like cutting-edge political strategists (they’re not), the filmmakers only interviewed people who sing the praises of this amateur “old boys” political clique. Other people interviewed in the documentary include Whitney Gravel, Mike Gravel’s wife, who says she initially didn’t want Mike to run for U.S. president again because she was concerned that he was too old, but she changed her mind because of the enthusiasm of the teen campaigners. Also interviewed are Dave Weigel of The Washington Post; Jamie Keiles of The New York Times; Bernie Sanders senior staffer Keane Bhatt; and a student classmate named Miranda Luiz.

And where are the parents of these teenagers? Only two of them are interviewed in the documentary, and they both give brief comments. Anne Williams, Henry’s mother, is fully supportive of what he’s doing. Bettina Weil, Oks’ mother, has some reservations when she says of the Gravel campaign team: “They were amazing with social media, etc. Criticizing politicians—I was not happy about that.”

In the documentary, Henry Williams says his father expressed concern that all the hateful comments that Henry has written about fellow Democrats could backfire in the future if Henry wants to pursue a political career. Henry says, “I told him, ‘If I can’t speak truth to power, or if I’m too afraid to, to protect my future or my career, then am I worth anything at all?'” It’s too bad that Henry Williams and the rest of the campaign leaders on the team aren’t shown actually doing any work in communities that need help, because their idea of activism is promoting themselves by using a privileged politician’s name on social media.

“American Gadfly” is a misguided documentary that lets its “stars” off the hook too easily when it comes to many problematic issues. For a better look at how Gen Z progressive liberals from America are speaking truth to power and engaging in the political process to make real changes—instead of perpetuating old systems in a self-promoting way—watch any of these documentaries on Gen Z activists who are part of truly inclusive and diverse teams: “Us Kids,” “We Are the Radical Monarchs” or “The Day I Had to Grow Up.”

Gravitas Ventures released “American Gadfly” on digital and VOD on January 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Kid Candidate,’ starring Hayden Pedigo

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

L’Hanna Pedigo and Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Kid Candidate”

Directed by Jasmine Stodel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Kid Candidate” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the 2019 political campaign of Hayden Pedigo, who campaigned to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas.

Culture Clash: Many people doubted the legitimacy of Pedigo’s campaign because he was 24 at the time, he had no political experience, and he made the unusual decision not to accept campaign donations.

Culture Audience: “Kid Candidate” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in documentaries about local Texas politics and young people who run for political office.

Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

The documentary “Kid Candidate” takes a fascinating look at how a musician in his mid-20s launched an unorthodox political campaign to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas. What started as a joke turned into an experience that changed people’s lives. Directed by Jasmine Stodel, “Kid Candidate” is a lot like the independent rock musician Hayden Pedigo, who decided to become an unlikely political candidate: The movie is lean, scrappy and kind of messy with neurotic quirks. But there’s no doubt that its heart is in the right place, which makes this documentary inspiring to watch without it being overly sappy.

At 68 minutes long, “Kid Candidate” is a fairly brisk chronicle of Pedigo’s journey into Amarillo politics. What would cause someone with previously no interest in politics to launch this long-shot campaign? A longtime Amarillo resident, Pedigo had a strict upbringing by his parents, whom he describes in the documentary as people who used to have wild lifestyles but at some point decided to turn their lives in the opposite direction and became religious Christian conservatives.

Pedigo and his sister were homeschooled for their entire education. In the documentary, he talks about how music was his salvation and emotional comfort when he was growing up in a very repressive household. Pedigo’s biological family members are not in the documentary, because he was estranged from them at the time. He says that these family members (especially his parents) were embarrassed by his political campaign.

However, Hayden’s supportive wife L’Hanna Pedigo is in the documentary. She says that Hayden has had lifelong insecurities and a deep fear of failure because his parents were overly critical of him. From an early age, Hayden had a rebellious streak. He says that his father described him as a caged wild animal when Hayden was growing up. L’Hanna observes that when Hayden’s family disapproved of him running for political office, it motivated Hayden even more to continue the campaign, which she says was almost like a “fuck you” to his family.

Hayden gets emotional when he remembers a criticism that his father had for him that Hayden admits still hurts Hayden to this day: When Hayden was a child, his father would call Hayden an “unplugged alarm clock”—even when plugged in, it keeps blinking and information could not be retained because it’s not programmed correctly. It’s basically an insulting way of telling someone, “You’re not very smart” or “There’s something mentally wrong with you.”

In the documentary, Hayden admits that his political campaign started off as kind of a lark. He and his best friend Alex Fairbanks (who’s interviewed in the documentary) would make goofy short films inspired by eccentric director Harmony Korine’s 1997 avant-garde film “Gummo.” Hayden would portray a fictional Amarillo city council member as a recurring character and do spoofs of what city council members might do when they walk around the city.

A few of these videos would go viral on social media, including one that landed on the front page of Reddit. People began to wonder, “What if Hayden really did run for a seat on the Amarillo city council?” Fairbanks, who was one of those people, remembers saying to Hayden, “I was like, ‘Dude, maybe you should go for city council. People are really liking this. You could probably follow through and win.'”

The idea stuck, and in 2019, Hayden declared his candidacy when he was 24 years old. (He turned 25 during the making of this movie.) The documentary includes footage of him officially registering as a candidate for Amarillo’s city council. At the time that Hayden declared his candidacy, Amarillo (the largest city in the Texas Panhandle) had a population of a little more than 269,000 people, according to the Texas State Department of Social and Health Services.

Hayden explains the fundamental reasons why he wanted to run for political office in Amarillo: “I felt there was a lack of representation, especially amongst my age group … Even if I don’t get elected, I want this to at least inspire somebody—just to get them to vote would be a major step.”

L’Hanna, whose job in the documentary is described as a “theatrical scene and lighting designer,” says that Hayden definitely had doubts about whether or not he should go through with the campaign: “He asked, ‘Would I look stupid doing it?’ … To me, that’s the only qualification—that you’re genuine and that you care about the city and that you care about the people.”

“Kid Candidate” shows that Hayden learns, sometimes the hard way, that it takes more than enthusiasm and lofty ideals to connect with voters. He gets help from civil rights/criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn, a grizzled and sometimes gruff political expert who becomes Hayden’s friend, mentor and sometimes biggest critic during the campaign. Blackburn, who is a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, is an outspoken liberal in a city that is mostly politically conservative.

At times, Blackburn expresses frustration at Hayden’s naiveté in running a political campaign. Among his criticisms of Hayden is that Hayden is willfully ignorant about certain issues that Hayden would need to be knowledgeable about if he were on the city council. Blackburn also admonishes Hayden for getting too caught up in thinking that social media “likes” and anonymous people giving praise in a comments section will translate into votes and other real support.

Hayden finds out this harsh reality in a somewhat embarrassing way, when he announces that he’s having a rally that he’s sure will be well-attended, based on all the positive responses that he got on social media. But in the end, less than 30 people showed up. Hayden also seems awkward when greeting people at his own rally. Like a parent reminding a child to be polite, Blackburn literally has to tell Hayden to say hello to individual people at the rally and thank them for attending.

However, Hayden’s strengths as a candidate are his compassion and his ability to clearly articulate his ideas (as generic as they might be) when he seems to have memorized what he is going to say. His biggest weakness as an aspiring politician is that he seems more comfortable addressing a crowd than having one-on-one interactions with strangers. While doing door-to-door campaigning, Hayden openly admits that he hates this type of campaign work. Blackburn bluntly asks why Hayden he’s running for an elected office, if he doesn’t want to talk to potential voters face-to-face at their homes.

Even though Hayden sometimes disagrees with Blackburn and often doesn’t take his mentor’s advice, they have genuine respect for each other. It’s not mentioned if Hayden belongs to any political party, but the ideas that he put forth during the campaign are for a moderate-to-liberal political agenda. He’s especially concerned about the economic disparities between the northern part of Amarillo (a low-income area populated mostly by people of color) and the southern part of Amarillo, where the city’s wealthiest (mostly white) residents live.

And speaking of the wealthiest Amarillo residents, the documentary frequently mentions Amarillo Matters, a politically conservative and highly influential coalition that donates campaign funds and endorses candidates that it wants to have in power in Amarillo. Claudia Stravato, a civil rights activist and political science instructor, describes Amarillo Matters this way: “The elites formed an organization, pooled their money, and made sure that their elitist friends got elected.”

The documentary mentions that Amarillo Matters declined to have any of its members or representatives interviewed for this movie. However, “Kid Candidate” does a good job of including a diverse group of people to get their perspectives on Hayden’s campaign and Amarillo’s ongoing issues. This variety of viewpoints and opinions make this a fairly well-rounded documentary.

But one of the documentary’s flaws is that it offers no explanation for why none of Hayden’s political opponents is shown in the film, except for brief footage of them in a “town hall” type of panel discussion. Four people, including Hayden, were running for Seat 1 of Amarillo’s city council in 2019. Hayden’s three other opponents were Elaine Hays (the incumbent candidate), Jay Kirkman III and Rich Herman. Even if none of these other candidates wanted to be interviewed for the documentary, the filmmakers should have included information on each of these rival candidates. It would give viewers a better sense of what these candidates were like and what type of campaigns that Hayden would be up against in this election.

One way that Hayden distinguished himself from his competitors and from most politicians in general is that he refused to accept campaign donations. Any campaign videos that he made had no budget or very low budgets. He had no staffers and no promotional merchandise for his very unusual campaign. As he says in the documentary: “I don’t need the money, I don’t need the [campaign] signs, I don’t need the T-shirts.”

Hayden’s main ways of promoting his campaign were by doing media interviews, speaking to groups of voters, and going on social media. He shows a sarcastic sense of humor when he privately mocks other candidates’ campaign wording. He’s also able to laugh at himself when he reacts to Amarillo Matters’ unflattering description of him in an Amarillo Matters statement where he was listed as a “not recommended” candidate. He considers this snub by Amarillo Matters to be a badge of honor.

Even though he got a lot of criticism for having no political experience, it’s very apparent that Hayden didn’t have a specific platform of policies for his campaign. He was running a campaign on general ideas of wanting to implement change, such as increasing diversity in the city’s government and giving better access to resources to Amarillo’s underprivileged residents. Because of his youth, inexperience and his refusal to take money for his campaign, Hayden was also running a campaign where he promoted himself as an “outsider” candidate who could think “outside the box,” shake things up in a positive way, and not be easily corrupted.

During his campaign, Hayden did some traveling outside of Amarillo. He went to Los Angeles to be interviewed on Tim Heidecker’s Talkhouse podcast. Hayden also went to the SXSW Festival in Austin, to perform as a musician. His SXSW rehearsals are briefly shown in the documentary, whose soundtrack has several original songs written and performed by Hayden. Like most unknown musicians, Hayden has a day job—he was a supervisor at Santa Fe Credit Union at the time this documentary was filmed—but that part of his life is not in the movie.

Some of the other people interviewed in the documentary include Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson, a lawyer/artist who gets tearful when she talks about what she says is the unfair and inaccurate criticism that she’s gotten as mayor. Nelson says that one of the misconceptions about her is that she’s a rich elitist who doesn’t care about the people of Amarillo. Nelson, who is endorsed by Amarillo Matters, says that it’s untrue that she comes from “old money” and that she actually came from a middle-class background.

Nelson says she decided to run for mayor of Amarillo because “I felt that God was asking me to step into an arena of influence to love people.” Nelson mentions God multiple times when she talks about how it relates to her political career, and how she will always take the high road when it comes to her critics and opponents. Meanwhile, her husband Kevin Nelson says in the documentary that anyone who goes into politics has to be prepared for others being ready to tear them down.

Hayden is shown meeting with various groups of people to get their support for his campaign. These groups include ultra-conservative Tea Party supporters (Hayden experiences some hostility at this Tea Party meeting when he says he has “progressive” plans for Amarillo); members of a South Sudanese church; and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But the one campaign event that he says was the most meaningful to him was when he was invited to an all-night cultural celebration held by people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community.

The event, which looks like it was held at a public community center, is not a large celebration (only 10 to 20 people seem to be in attendance at any given time), but Hayden says it was the first group of people he met with during his campaign that didn’t laugh at him. Hayden and L’Hanna, who are the only white people at this event, are shown mingling with the sparse crowd and dancing past midnight, when Hayden gave a brief speech of gratitude to the approximately six people who were left in the room.

After the event, L’Hanna talks about how getting to know people in the South Sudanese community was eye-opening for her and Hayden. She begins to cry when she talks about how she found out that even though life in Amarillo might be difficult for the South Sudanese refugees, many of them told her that they were grateful to live in a place where they could sleep at night without fear of being killed by marauding military soldiers.

Hayden was invited to this event by a mass communications student/South Sudanese refugee named Agol Aloak, who became an ardent supporter of Hayden because he wasn’t a typical politician. Aloak says she has this opinion of most politicians: “You don’t know my struggles. You don’t want to help me … I really want change.” She also describes how many people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community work for corporate meat company Tyson Foods in dead-end factory jobs with unsafe and grueling conditions. She describes it as slightly better than “slave labor.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary are residents of Amarillo’s economically troubled north side, such as Tremaine Brown, owner of Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food Cafe; Bol Ngor, chairman of Amarillo’s South Sudanese community and assistant supervisor at Tyson Foods; David Lovejoy, KGNC radio program director and first vice-president of the Amarillo chapter of the NAACP; and “self-employed” hip-hop artist Randolph Sims, also known as Koola. They all talk about the discrepancies in how the Amarillo city council treats their part of the city, compared to the wealthier southern part of the city.

The documentary interviewees also include dentist/Amarillo city council member Eddie Sauer; The 806 Coffee + Lounge owner Courtney Brown; Six Car Pub and Brewery owner Colin Cummings; local businessman Craig Gualtree; Hayden’s friend Grayson Carter; Texas Monthly senior editor Randy Barkett; HITTS magazine president Karen Glauber; and Hayden’s friend/street artist Malcolm Byers, who paints an impressive street wall mural of Hayden, just days before the election.

“Kid Candidate” doesn’t sugarcoat that this campaign at times took a heavy emotional toll on Hayden, who seems to have bouts of anxiety and depression. In one scene in the movie, a conversation of text messages between Hayden and “Kid Candidate” documentary director Stodel is shown, where Hayden sounds like he’s in such an emotionally dark place that he doesn’t want to even be seen on camera. Later that night, Hayden ends up going to the South Sudanese cultural event, which he says lifted his spirits considerably.

Hayden is certainly not the first person in the world to run for political office before the age of 30 or with no experience in politics. However, his unique journey as a political candidate can be used as a memorable example of someone who decided to not just talk about change but tried to make change happen—even if it meant stepping outside of personal comfort zones and risking a lot of humiliation and rejection. Regardless of how people might feel about politics, anyone watching “Kid Candidate” will appreciate that having the right to express opinions and other personal freedoms shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Kid Candidate” on digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘How to Fix a Primary,’ starring Abdul El-Sayed

October 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abdul El-Sayed in “How to Fix a Primary” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“How to Fix a Primary”

Directed by Brittany Huckabee 

Culture Representation: The documentary “How to Fix a Primary,” which is about Abdul El-Sayed’s 2018 campaign to become governor of Michigan, features a racially diverse group of people (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos), who are mostly political progressives, discussing the campaign.

Culture Clash: El-Sayed, who is a progressive Democrat, contends that he faced an uphill battle against well-funded establishment factions of the Democratic Party that unfairly squeeze out upstart “outsider” Democratic candidates.

Culture Audience: “How to Fix a Primary” will primarily appeal to people who like watching political documentaries about progressive liberals or “underdog” political candidates.

Abdul El-Sayed in “How to Fix a Primary” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

It’s really no secret that campaign funds and political connections play major roles in the likelihood that a political candidate can get elected. But is the system rigged for “establishment” candidates to get unfair advantages over “outsider” candidates, even those who are from the same political party? In the case of medical doctor Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive Democrat who lost the 2018 primary election to become Michigan’s governor, the answer is a resounding “yes,” according to the documentary “How to Fix a Primary.”

Directed by Brittany Huckabee, “How to Fix a Primary” is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at El-Sayed’s ill-fated campaign, although at times the movie looks more like an electronic press kit to promote El-Sayed than an objective documentary that takes an unflinching look at any of his flaws. People don’t have to be a Democrat or a progressive liberal to enjoy watching this documentary. However, people who watch “How to Fix a Primary” are more likely to enjoy it if they’re inclined to root for “outsider” political candidates who take bold risks to fight for what they believe, even if the odds and many naysayers/doubters are stacked against these “outsider” candidates.

El-Sayed (who is known as a CNN commentator) is an Egyptian American who is also Muslim. He is very proud of and unapologetic about who he is, but he is also well-aware that some voters automatically won’t support him because of his ethnicity and religion. However, his campaign was geared largely to open-minded progressives who wanted something different from the “status quo” in a Michigan governor.

Born in Detroit in 1984, El-Sayed is a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from the University of Michigan, Oxford University and Columbia University. He served as executive director of the Detroit Health Department, as well as Health Officer for the city of Detroit, from 2015 to 2017. He also used to be an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. El-Sayed married his wife Sarah Jukaku while they were in college in 2006 (she is shown as a supportive spouse in a few scenes in the documentary), and their first child (a daughter named Emmalee) was born during his 2018 Michigan gubernatorial campaign.

Despite his background as a privileged professional, El-Sayed’s overall campaign message was that he was a champion for “everyday people,” and he refused to take campaign money from corporate donors. His candidate platform was largely about reforming Michigan’s government policies to be more uplifting and beneficial to the working-class and poor and to fund his proposed programs mainly by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Health care, criminal-justice reforms, infrastructure and Michigan’s polluted water crisis were among the top priorities on his agenda. (He is a big proponent of Medicare for All.) If El-Sayed had won the general election, he would have been the first Muslim to become a state governor in the United States. In the movie, he’s shown to be a political candidate who is passionate, articulate and approachable. However, compared to his main Democratic opponents, the documentary portrays him as an under-funded “doomed” candidate because he wasn’t willing to go to certain lengths in order to win.

Within the Democratic Party, he faced stiff competition from two very different middle-aged candidates. Gretchen Whitmer, who won the 2018 primary election and general election to become Michigan’s governor, was considered the “establishment” candidate who got millions in campaign money from corporate donors. She served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2001 to 2006, and in the Michigan Senate from 2006 to 2015. Shri Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and self-made millionaire entrepreneur, spent his own money on his political campaign. Thanedar used his experience in business and his “political outsider” status as reasons to vote for him because, just like El-Sayed, he promised to shake up Michigan’s government with progressive changes.

Because “How to Fix a Primary” is obviously sympathetic to El-Sayed and his campaign, the documentary takes a very scathing critical look at Whitmer and Thanedar. Whitmer is portrayed as a political hack, a corporate sell-out and someone who relied too heavily on her “Fix the Damn Roads” catchphrase for her campaign. El-Sayed says in the documentary that Michigan’s water crisis should’ve been Whitmer’s bigger priority than fixing roads. Thanedar is portrayed as a power-hungry opportunist, with a history of shady business practices, who wanted to buy his way into becoming Michigan’s governor. El-Sayed’s campaign also accuses Thanedar of not being a true Democrat, based on reports that he chose to run as a Democrat instead of as a Republican because Thanedar thought he would have a better chance of winning as a Democrat.

However valid those criticisms might or might not be, the movie’s biggest shortcoming is that the filmmakers place almost no scrutiny on El-Sayed, who’s portrayed as morally righteous and as close to “perfect” as a politician can be. The reality is that no politician is as “perfect” as this documentary wants El-Sayed to look. In the documentary, the filmmakers do not ask him to reflect on any past personal or professional mistakes and what he learned from them. All of the televised debate footage in the documentary is carefully edited so that only El-Sayed’s best soundbites are used.

It seems like the filmmakers were afraid to expose anything that would make El-Sayed look less than perfect. But by conveniently erasing or not mentioning anything in the film that makes El-Sayed look like a human being who makes mistakes like everyone else does, it actually undermines his calculated efforts to appear to be a “regular guy” fighting for Michigan communities who are underrepresented and often-overlooked. El-Sayed mentions in the documentary that he gets hate mail and he had to hire a security staffer, but that’s standard for anyone running for a high-profile public office.

The people on El-Sayed’s campaign team who get the most screen time are also portrayed as social justice warriors who think they’re immune to corruption and are ready to accuse their opponents of playing dirty. (Almost all of his campaign workers are under the age of 40.) The top-level people on El-Sayed’s team who are featured in the documentary are campaign manager Max Glass, deputy campaign manager Claire Sandberg, policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright and communications director Adam Joseph.

There’s only one scene in the documentary where El-Sayed is personally confronted by a critic. After a campaign appearance, while he is surrounded by people recording him with their phones, an extreme right-wing YouTube personality named Laura Loomer asks El-Sayed how he can claim to be a devout Muslim and also be an ally to the LGBTQ community, since the Muslim religion teaches that homosexuality is morally wrong. El-Sayed is tactfully gracious in his response: “What’s beautiful about this country is that I choose my own faith, and you choose yours or none at all.”

Loomer tries to press the issue, but El-Sayed eventually cuts off her line of questioning and ends up leaving. As he departs in the hallway, he says to his security personnel about being ambushed by Loomer: “You guys have got to jump on that way faster.” Loomer, who is known for expressing conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim rhetoric, eventually became a political candidate herself: In the 2020 elections, she was the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Florida’s 21st congressional district, where Donald Trump lives.

If you were to believe everything presented in this documentary, El-Sayed was the only Democratic candidate who had a “clean” campaign in this Michigan gubernatorial election. Meanwhile, there’s a reason why so many voters mistrust all politicians: There’s a widespread belief that all politicians eventually do secret deals that benefit the politicians, not the people they’re supposed to serve.

But according to Sandberg, progressive Democrats are the most honest factions of the Democratic Party, compared to moderate Democrats who are part of the establishment. In the documentary, she compares the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to feuding crime families: “The best analogy that I can think of for the situation progressives are in to compete in these types of elections is that there’s a war going on between two different crime families. And progressives are legitimate business operators trying to compete against these two warring crime families.”

Sandberg adds of establishment politicians, “They control the process. They control the media. They control the money. And it’s incredibly difficult to take them on.” Later in the documentary, in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, Sandberg attends a Michigan board of elections hearing where she presents her campaign team’s case that Thanedar should be removed from the ballot because he allegedly collected thousands of fraudulent signatures. El-Sayed’s team wanted the board of elections to investigate and find that Thanedar did not have the minimum 15,000 legitimate voter signatures required to be a candidate for Michigan governor.

Leading up to this crucial hearing, the documentary showed the painstaking work that El-Sayed’s campaign workers put into comparing thousands of signatures against voter registrations, to see if the signatures matched what was on file, and to find any signatures that could be disqualified. For example, voters could not sign election petitions for more than one gubernatorial candidate. Signatures could also be disqualified if they belonged to people who weren’t registered voters at the time they signed.

The board’s decision is what El-Sayed’s team did not expect. But in hindsight, El-Sayed’s campaign staffers say in the documentary that the decision was rigged from the beginning. Sandberg places most of the blame on board of elections member Julie Matuzak, a Whitmer supporter who was an American Federation of Teachers lobbyist and someone whom Sandberg says was also running a “dark money” group that was funneling donations into Whitmer’s campaign. It’s a conflict of interest that would be one of the reasons why Whitmer’s fundraising for this campaign came under legal scrutiny in 2019.

The documentary also shows how El-Sayed’s opponents tried to discredit his eligibility by claiming he hadn’t lived in Michigan long enough to be qualified to run for governor of Michigan. Under Michigan law, a candidate for governor must be a Michigan resident who lived in Michigan for the four consecutive years before the election year. El-Sayed lived and voted in New York City in 2012, but he had been living in Michigan for at least four years when he declared his gubernatorial candidacy in 2017. 

However, this question over his eligibility (which was eventually resolved in his favor by a Michigan court) and the media attention about this issue ended up damaging El-Sayed’s campaign, according to Glass, who previously worked on campaigns for Democratic politicians Tulsi Gabbard and Seth Moulton. Gunn-Wright comes right out and says that racism was at the root of the accusation against El-Sayed. Even though the accusation against El-Sayed was proven to be false, it decreased voter confidence in El-Sayed and hurt his fundraising. At one point in the documentary, Glass dejectedly tells campaign workers in a meeting that they only have $474,000 in campaign funds, while Whitmer is estimated to have raised $4.5 million for her campaign.

Money can make or break a campaign, but that’s true for politicians of any political leaning, not just progressive Democrats. And plenty of white politicians have been accused of carpetbagging or not being eligible for a campaign, based on previous residences, so it’s not an accusation that’s unique to non-white candidates. El-Sayed and Glass both comment that when El-Sayed raised $1 million in donations earlier in the campaign, that’s when El-Sayed’s political opponents (Democrats and Republicans) began to see him as a threat, and accusations soon followed that El-Sayed was not an eligible candidate based on his residential history. In other words, money played more of a role than racial identity in El-Sayed being perceived as a threat and targeted for elimination by the competition.

Although the documentary would like to portray Whitmer and Thanedar as the villains in this campaign, it’s clear that high-profile progressives in the Democratic Party weren’t exactly rushing to align themselves with El-Sayed in this campaign. El-Sayed’s campaign team tried in vain for about a year to get the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, who held off on endorsing El-Sayed until just a few days before the primary election day. El-Sayed’s campaign manager Glass comments in the film that although Sanders’ endorsement was appreciated, that public vote of confidence from Sanders was too late. 

One exception to El-Sayed’s relative lack of support from high-profile progressive Democrats was Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who was an early political ally of El-Sayed’s, before she became a star in the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez and El-Sayed share a kinship because they were in similar situations in the 2018 elections: As young people of color running for political office for the first time, they branded themselves as progressive “outsiders” who want to shake up the establishment. An early scene in “How to Fix a Primary” shows El-Sayed giving Ocasio-Cortez a friendly tour of Detroit. (The Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House” gives further insight into why Ocasio-Cortez won her 2018 election.)

Despite the flaw of being heavily biased in portraying El-Sayed in the best possible light, “How to Fix a Primary” does an admirable job of putting his campaign in a larger context of how much can be bought and sold in an election in order for a candidate to win. It’s not a new issue, nor will this documentary solve the problem. Political corruption and voter mistrust will continue to affect the outcome of elections. But at least the film takes a unique look at the journey that one political candidate took to try to push back against what he sees as a rigged system.

Gravitas Ventures released “How to Fix a Primary” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on October 20, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are Many,’ starring Mark Rylance, Damon Albarn, John le Carré, Medea Benjamin, Lawrence Wilkerson, Jesse Jackson and Amira Howeidy

October 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anti-war protesters in London on February 15, 2003 in “We Are Many” (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

“We Are Many”

Directed by Amir Amirani 

Culture Representation: The documentary “We Are Many,” which is about how the 2003 protests against the Iraq war sparked a worldwide anti-war movement, features a racially diverse group of people (white, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) from various countries who talk about the impact of these protests on social activism.

Culture Clash: Many of the people in the documentary say that governments won’t make changes unless enough people protest and demand changes.

Culture Audience: “We Are Many” will primarily appeal to people who like watching political documentaries that have liberal-leaning attitudes about war.

Anti-war protesters in New York City on February 15, 2003 in “We Are Many” (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The documentary “We Are Many” expresses many timeless beliefs about peace being a better alternative to war, but the movie still can’t quite help look outdated in many ways. Directed by Amir Amirani, “We Are Many” was originally released in the United Kingdom in 2015, and didn’t get a U.S. release until 2020. A lot has happened in those five years that have shaken up political systems around the world, including Brexit and the elections of politically conservative presidents or prime ministers in several countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil and the Philippines.

“We Are Many” has a hodgepodge of commentaries from people in politics, science, the military and the entertainment industry who consider themselves to be social activists. It’s a movie that slants heavily in the direction of progressive liberal ideals, so people who are already inclined to have these beliefs are more likely to watch this documentary, which tends to have a “preaching to the converted” tone.

The overall concept of “We Are Many” is that people in the general public outnumber the politicians and other government officials who are in charge of making government policies. And therefore, it’s up to the majority (the people in the general public) to keep these officials in check and protest if these officials aren’t doing what’s in the best interest of the people they serve. The documentary gives a lot of credit to the worldwide protests against the Iraq War for sparking a 21st century movement of anti-war protests that are truly on a global scale in ways that anti-war protests hadn’t been before February 15, 2003: the flagship date when anti-Iraq War protests took place in several countries around the world.

“We Are Many” interviews a lot of talking heads, to the point where it seems a little too overstuffed with people repeating the same beliefs over and over. There are almost no viewpoints expressed from people who disagree with what these pundits are saying. Hindsight can easily say that the now-debunked “weapons of mass destruction” argument as the main reason to declare war in Iraq was a falsehood/mistake that should never have happened.

But it’s quite another thing to take a more analytical approach to explain why war happens instead of forcing a blanket mindset that “all war is evil, no matter what.” Would the Nazi Germans have been defeated if World War II had not happened? If the U.S. Civil War hadn’t happened, how much longer would slavery have been legal in the U.S., considering that the Emancipation Proclamation happened as a direct result of the U.S. Civil War?

As it stands, “We Are Many” focuses on the Iraq War as being an example of a war that was worth protesting. The movie, although it has good intentions, needed better editing so that it wouldn’t seem so scattershot and unfocused. It jumps from people commenting on the 9/11 attacks to people talking about how the anti-Iraq War protests affected the civil uprisings in Egypt to people giving an analysis to how people protested in the United States and Australia to how the war altered political history in the United Kingdom

And because there are numerous people interviewed in the movie, most of their comments are reduced to brief soundbites. Here’s the very long list of people interviewed in the documentary:

  • Damon Albarn, musician/producer (Blur, Gorillaz)
  • Tariq Ali, British political activist, writer and journalist
  • Anas al-Tikriti, CEO/founder of The Cordoba Foundation
  • David Babbs, co-founder of campaign community 38 Degrees
  • Medea Benjamin, Code Pink co-founder
  • Tony Benn, British Politician who served in Parliament for 47 years
  • Phyllis Bennis, writer/analyst/director of New Internationalism Project at IPS
  • Joan Blades, political activist/Huffington Post blogger
  • Dr. Hans Blix, former UN Weapons Inspector
  • David Blunkett, British Labour Party politician/Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough
  • Raffaella Bolini, member of the International Council of the World Social Forum/vice president of the European Civic Forum
  • Richard Branson, business mogul
  • Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard Branson/founder of Marrakech Biennale
  • Dave Burgess, Australian environmentalist
  • Leslie Cagan, activist/writer/Socialist organizer
  • Noam Chomsky, philosopher
  • Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a Member of Parliament for Islington North
  • David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute/chair of the board of the Fourth Freedom Forum
  • Mariah Crossland, former U.S. Antarctic research center at the McMurdo in Antarctica
  • Brian Eno, musician/record producer/theorist
  • Lord Charles Falconer, English qualified barrister/former U.K. Lord Chancellor and first Secretary of State for Justice
  • Bill Fletcher Jr., activist/author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!”
  • Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition/co-author of “A People’s History of London”
  • Danny Glover, actor/activist
  • Tim Goodrich, U.S. Air Force veteran/co-founder Iraq Veterans Against the War
  • Robert Greenwald, founder and president of Brave New Films
  • Hossam Hamalawy, Egyptian journalist/blogger/photographer/social activist
  • Tom Hayden, activist/author/politician
  • Amira Howeidy, Egyptian journalist
  • Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow/PUSH
  • Colleen Kelly, founding member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows
  • Ashraf Khalil, journalist/author of the critically acclaimed book “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation”
  • Wael Khalil, Egyptian political activist
  • Ron Kovic, Vietnam War veteran/author
  • John le Carré, author
  • Robbie Liben, former senior computer technician at McMurdo Station in Antarctica
  • Ken Loach, film director
  • Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund
  • Sameh Naguib, Egyptian sociologist at the American University in Cairo
  • Chris Nineham, political activist/founding Member of the Stop the War Coalition
  • Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph
  • Gasser Abdel Razek, human rights activist
  • John Rees, political activist/broadcaster/writer/national officer of the Stop the War Coalition/founding member of Counterfire
  • Mark Rylance, actor
  • Philippe Sands, British and French lawyer at Matrix Chambers/professor of international law University College London
  • Susan Sarandon, actress
  • Will Saunders, astronomer
  • Clare Short, British politician
  • Hani Shukrallah, Egyptian journalist and political analyst
  • Marina Sitrin, writer/lawyer/teacher/editor/author
  • Patrick Tyler, journalist/author
  • Esther Vivas, activist in Barcelona
  • Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and associate director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning
  • Salma Yaqoob, former leader/former vice-chair of the Respect Party/former Birmingham City Councillor/member of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition
  • Andy Young, mechanic at McMurdo Station in Antarctica

Even with this overabundance of people who repeat similar views of being against the war in Iraq, there are some interviewees in the documentary who stand out with their comments.

Goodrich, a U.S. Air Force veteran who in 2004 co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War, says, “I do remember in the steady drumbeat to war, there was one sane voice in the crowd … Colin [Powell] is the only one who’s going to be able to stop this.” Blix says of Powell’s eventual advocation for war in Iraq: “I don’t really want to criticize him, but it was a debacle for him and the world.”

Wilkerson (Powell’s former chief of staff) says about crafting Powell’s now-infamous testimony that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “Yeah, I was in charge of it. And when I finished it and thought about it, I felt miserable, because I thought we had just put a whole array of circumstantial evidence up that can be interpreted in any number of different ways. And we were probably going to war, and it sort of bothered me. And now, I feel like it was the lowest point, as I’ve said before, in my professional and personal life. I wish I had resigned.”

Later in the documentary, Wilkerson says that if George W. Bush (the U.S. president who declared war on Iraq), Dick Cheney (Bush’s vice president) and Donald Rumsfeld (who was U.S. secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006) were ever brought to trial on war crimes because of their decisions for the Iraq War, Wilkerson thinks he should also be one of the people who should be punished for the same crimes. The documentary includes archival footage of Code Pink co-founder Benjamin and other activists ambushing Rumsfeld at public events and yelling at him “War criminal!” before being taken away by security personnel.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister who aligned himself with Bush during the Iraq War, is also described as a villain by many people in the documentary. Corbyn says that Blair took various MPs aside individually and pressured them to be loyal to him about the Iraq War, by asking them, “Are you with me or against me?”

Oscar-winning British actor Rylance says of Blair: “I think should be at the Hague. He should be tried for war crimes against society.” As for author le Carré (who’s known for political thrillers such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), he doesn’t mince words when he share his thoughts about the war in Iraq: “It was the crime of the century.”

The documentary notes: “Tony Blair and all members of his 2003 British Cabinet were invited for interviews. Only David Blunkett, Paul Boateng and Clare Short accepted.” However, only Short ended up in the movie, and she says nothing surprising or revealing because she puts the blame on U.S. leaders for providing the misinformation that led to Blair’s administration siding with the United States. She says that “Rumsfeld, at the first meeting after the attack on the Twin Towers, said, ‘That’s it. Let’s go after Iraq.'”

As for the political activism that resulted from the controversial Iraq War, the documentary puts a lot of emphasis on international peace protests. But “We Are Many” doesn’t fully acknowledge that, for a period of time in the U.S., it was considered very unpopular and unpatriotic to protest against the war because the war was widely perceived as being a war against the terrorists who caused 9/11. The movie doesn’t mention the American country-music trio the Dixie Chicks and how their anti-war/anti-George W. Bush comments damaged their career.

Instead, there’s a parade of people in the documentary who act as if more people in the general public should have known in 2003 that no weapons of mass destruction existed. It goes into a slippery slope of an “I told you so” attitude that’s fueled by hindsight and evidence that came out long after the fact. “We Are Many” has its heart in the right place, but there’s a heavy-handed preachiness to how it expects everyone who’s against war to be out there protesting in the streets, when that’s not necessarily how all concerned citizens express their activism and political views.

Of those who do choose to protest in the streets, musician Albarn says that his experiences from 2003 taught him that one big march isn’t enough. More public protests have to continue for the government to really pay attention. “If you keep coming back, you will make the change,” says Albarn.

Film director Loach adds: “I don’t think the marching itself would’ve stopped the war, because people go home and governments live with that. What they [governments] can’t live with is serious organization. And that’s what we needed out of that.”

Of course, so much has happened in worldwide protests since this documentary was completed—including worldwide movements for the Women’s March, March for Our Lives (against gun violence) and Black Lives Matter—that “We Are Many” seems very outdated when people in the movie wistfully talk about how the Iraq War was the last time that people around the world came together to march for a single cause. However, the sincere beliefs to choose peace whenever possible are the most important aspects of this movie, and those beliefs will never become obsolete.

Area 23a Films and Iambic Dream Films released “We Are Many” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 25, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is July 27, 2021. “We Are Many” was originally released in the United Kingdom in 2015.

Review: ‘All In: The Fight for Democracy,’ starring Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Debo Adegbile, Sean J. Young and Ari Berman

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stacey Abrams in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American) discussing past and present issues in U.S. citizens’ right to vote.

Culture Clash: The consensus of people interviewed in the documentary is that voting inequalities, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, stem from party politics and bigotry issues against people of color, young people and people who are economically disadvantaged.

Culture Audience: “All In: The Fight for Democracy” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal-leaning beliefs, since conservative lawmakers are portrayed as the chief villains who want to suppress people’s votes. 

A scene from “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés) examines the history of voting rights in the United States and how those rights have been violated. It’s a subject that’s theoretically supposed to be a non-partisan issue, but the documentary doesn’t try and hide that it’s biased heavily toward liberal politics and the Democratic Party, which is portrayed as the political party that’s taking the most action to include more U.S. citizens in the voting process. When it comes to modern-day voter suppression and the push to exclude people from the voting process, the documentary puts the blame primarily on Republican politicians and other lawmakers who have conservative-leaning political beliefs.

Democratic politician Stacey Abrams is one of the producers of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” so it’s no surprise that she’s the main star of the movie, which uses her highly contested 2018 political campaign for governor of Georgia as an example of voter suppression. Her opponent in that campaign was Republican politician Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of overseeing the voting process in Georgia while he was campaigning for governor. Overseeing the voting process in his own election was an obvious conflict of interest, but Kemp refused to step down from his secretary of state position during his gubernatorial campaign because it was legal in Georgia for him to keep that position while he was campaigning for another office.

In the end, after 10 days of the election results being contested, Kemp was declared the winner with 50% of the votes, while it was announced that Abrams received 49% of the votes. The controversial election resulted in Abrams and her political group Fair Fight filing lawsuits and investigating reports of widespread voter suppression and other tactics to prevent thousands of people in Georgia from voting. The accusations are that this voter suppression has disproportionately affected districts with voters who are registered Democrats and/or people of color. The racial elements of this election could not be ignored, since Abrams would have been the first African American woman to be a state governor in the U.S. if she had won the election.

Critics of Abrams have called her a “sore loser,” but there is a valid argument in wondering what the outcome of that election would have been if thousands of voter registrations hadn’t been mysteriously purged from computer systems. There were also confirmed reports of thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats. It also looked suspicious that most of the voting sites that were permanently shut down in Georgia were in districts with a high percentage of people of color and Democrats.

Even though Abrams gets the most screen time in this documentary, the entire film isn’t “The Stacey Abrams Show,” because most of the film is about the history of U.S. citizens’ right to vote and some of the recurring problems in the U.S. voting process. Abrams’ family background is mentioned (she’s the second-oldest of six kids, raised primarily in Mississippi and Georgia), and her parents Robert and Carolyn Abrams (who are both ministers) are interviewed in the film. The documentary also includes the 1993 footage of Abrams (when she was a 19-year-old student at Spelman College) speaking at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. Coming from a family that placed a high value on education, religion, voting and public service, it’s no wonder that she wanted to go into politics.

The first half of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” takes a look at the long history of voter exclusion and suppression in the United States, before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and how certain groups of people have constantly had to fight for their right to vote. The second half of the documentary focuses primarily on U.S. voting rights during and after the 1960s civil-rights movement. As historian/author Carol Anderson comments in the documentary: “Past is prologue. Those forces that are systemically determined to keep American citizens from voting, they have been laying the seeds over time.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, only 6% of U.S. citizens had the right to vote. These citizens were white male property owners. The documentary does an excellent job of retracing how laws gradually changed for voting to open up to more U.S. citizens, so that property ownership wasn’t a requirement to vote and U.S. citizens who weren’t white men got the right to vote. The 15th Amendment (which, in 1870, gave U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, color or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (which gave U.S. women the right to vote in 1920) and the Voting Rights Act (originally signed into law in 1965) are three of the most important legislations to make these voting rights possible.

The documentary reiterates that the biggest injustices in voting often stem from racism. After the slaves were freed, the U.S. experienced the Reconstruction period when, for the first time in U.S. history, African American men began to own property and held elected offices on the federal and state levels. But, as “Give Us the Ballot” author Ari Berman says in the documentary: “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.”

In other words, when people of color are perceived as advancing too far in American society, there’s political backlash. The Reconstruction period led to the shameful Jim Crow period, particularly in Southern states, which passed racial segregation laws making it more difficult for people of color to access the same levels of education and resources as white people. Poll taxes and literacy tests became requirements to vote and were used as a way to weed out poor and uneducated people, who were disproportionately people of color. Black men in particular were singled out for arrests for minor crimes (such as loitering), and these arrest records were used as reasons to prevent them from voting in certain states.

The Florida felony disenfranchisement law of 1868 created a trend of felons being barred from voting. The U.S. is currently the only democracy that doesn’t allow convicted felons to vote. Critics of this voter exclusion law say that it’s inherently racist because people of color are more likely to be convicted of the same felonies that white people are accused of committing. Efforts to repeal the “felons can’t vote” laws are mentioned in the documentary, which includes an interview with Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The documentary also mentions that before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it could be dangerous and sometimes deadly for African Americans and other people of color who voted. African Americans and other people of color could get fired for voting if they had a racist employer. Depending on the area, African Americans and other people of color would be the targets of violence if they voted. And even registering to vote could be an ordeal, since it was common in certain areas for intimidation tactics to be used on people of color during voter registration.

The documentary names Maceo Snipes (an African American military veteran) as an example: In 1946, Snipes was murdered because he defied segregation laws and was the only African American to vote in Georgia’s Democratic primary election. Abrams shares a story that her grandmother Wilter “Bill” Abrams told her about being terrified the first time that she voted, because Wilter was afraid that she would be attacked by white racists at the voting site. Wilter was eventually persuaded to vote by her husband, who reminded her of the people who sacrificed their lives to give people of color the right to vote in America.

“All In” also details how other racial groups have been the targets of voter exclusion in U.S. history. In its early years, California resisted laws to allow Chinese people and other Asians to vote. States near the Mexican border, particularly Arizona and Texas, have a long history of trying to exclude Latinos and Native Americans from voting. In many situations, people were kept from voting if English was not their first language. The United States does not have an official language, and there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. residents and U.S. voters are required to speak English.

According to several people in the documentary, the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of Democratic politician Barack Obama (the first African American president of the United States) sparked a backlash that led to an increased push by conservative lawmakers to erode the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Shelby County v. Holder case that voting laws could revert back to the individual U.S. states. This Supreme Court ruling opened up a floodgate of states (usually in the South and Midwest) that revised their voting laws that critics say make it easier for these states to allow voter suppression.

Historian/author Anderson doesn’t mince words about these revised voting laws that began in the 2010s: “It’s Jim Crow 2.0.” Gerrymandering and voter suppression are described in the documentary as two sides of the same coin. The documentary reiterates the warning that voter manipulation usually targets people of color, poor people and young people. And because most people of color who are U.S. citizens tend to be Democrats, the documentary implies that corrupt Republicans are behind a lot of the voter suppression when it comes to people of color.

Voter suppression comes in three main forms: strict voter ID laws, voting roll purges and permanent closing of voting sites. Critics say that voter ID laws are designed to exclude poor and uneducated U.S. citizens who might not have government-issued IDs. Voting roll purges (eliminating voter registrations) are often done without voters’ knowledge and permission, and are usually because the eliminated voters haven’t voted for a number of years or for other random reasons. And permanent closures of voting sites have been found to occur mostly in economically disadvantaged areas where there’s a large percentage of people of color.

In many cases, even if a voter has a government-issued ID, the voter can be turned away at the voting site if the voter’s signature is not an exact match to the signature that the voter has on file with the board of elections office. In the documentary, Sean J. Young of ACLU Georgia says signatures that don’t match are big issues with Asian immigrants, who often have an Asian first name and an American first name. Barb Semans and OJ Semans of Four Directions (a voting-rights group for Native Americans) mention that North Dakota’s voting law requiring a residential address for registration excludes numerous Native Americans who have to use post-office boxes because they live on reservations without residential addresses.

Alejandra Gomez and Alexis Delgado Garcia of Lucha (a voting-rights groups for Latinos) are featured in the documentary. Garcia is seen approaching different people in Latino communities with voter registration information and encouragement to vote. The results are mixed. Some of the people aren’t U.S. citizens and therefore aren’t eligible to vote, while the U.S. citizens are either interested in registering and plan to vote, or are reluctant to register because they don’t like or trust politicians. Gomez comments, “The most important part of voter registration is that human connection and being able to understand why that person does not trust.”

Abrams says in the documentary: “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them, we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” Eric Holder, who was U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, comments: “Too many Americans take for granted the right to vote and don’t understand that unless we fight for the right to vote, unless we try to include as many people as possible, our democracy is put at risk.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice; historian/author Eric Foner; civil-rights leader Andrew Young; civil-rights attorney Debo Adegbile; Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party; Lauren Goh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voters Right Act into law; Ohio U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge; and student activists Michael Parsons (from Dartmouth College) and Jayla Allen (of Prairie View A&M University).

This documentary is obviously stacked with people who are open with their politically liberal beliefs and who are known Democrats. There’s some attempt to present conservative points of view, but not much. One of the conservative-leaning people interviewed in the documentary is attorney Bert Rein, who represented Shelby County, Alabama, in the Shelby County v. Holder case. He doesn’t say much except that he thought that the case was legally compelling enough for him to want to represent Shelby County.

Hans Von Spakovsky of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which is a major advocate of voter ID laws, is also interviewed in the documentary. He says that the “vast majority” of people in the United States believe in voter ID laws, although he doesn’t list any sources or details as the basis for this statement. Considering that the documentary describes voter suppression and gerrymandering as being perpetrated mostly by corrupt Republicans, it’s not too surprising that a documentary with a Democratic politician (Abrams) as one of the producers is not going to give much of a voice to the opposition.

Even with this blatant bias, “All In” could have done a better job at looking at other cases of suspected voter suppression besides Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial election campaign. Because the documentary presents Abrams’ case as the only major example of suspected voter suppression, it undermines the documentary’s message that voter suppression is a widespread problem. A skeptic could easily say that the Abrams/Kemp campaign controversy was a rare fluke. It also would have been interesting to see more of what Fair Fight is doing behind the scenes to prevent voter suppression.

And there could have been more of an exploration of how votes are manipulated in ways other than voter suppression. For example, there’s no mention in the documentary about how computer hacking affects voting machines that process data via computers. (The excellent HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War Over America’s Elections” examines this cyberhacking topic in depth.) And there is growing concern over how governments from outside the U.S. could be corrupting the U.S. electoral system to influence the votes of U.S. citizens.

The documentary also should have had more interviews with people who work on the “front lines” of voting, such as polling workers and officials who work for boards of elections. There’s a definite “liberal elitism” tone to this documentary, because of the numerous Democratic politicians and liberal attorneys who are interviewed. And during the end credits of the film, several celebrities who are outspoken liberals (such as Gloria Steinem, Constance Wu, Jonathan Van Ness, Gabourey Sidibe, the Jonas Brothers and Yara Shahidi) give soundbites telling people their voting rights.

“All In” makes its liberal bias abundantly clear, but people of any political persuasion can appreciate that the documentary has a superb overview of the history of voting in the U.S. and explains how people can be more informed voters. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that there are massive inequalities in people’s voting experiences in the U.S., and many of the problems are rooted in racism and other prejudices. It’s this history lesson and encouragement of more awareness for voter rights—rather than the partisan posturing and finger-pointing—where “All In” shines the most.

Amazon Studios released “All In: The Fight for Democracy” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,’ starring Dana Bash, Kyung Lah, Jasmine Wright, Daniella Diaz, Kaitlan Collins, Annie Grayer and MJ Lee

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daniella Diaz in “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” (Photo courtesy of CNN/HBO Max)

“On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities across the United States, the documentary film “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian and Latino) group of female CNN reporters as they cover the primaries in the 2020 U.S. presidential race.

Culture Clash:  Several of the reporters talk about how their line of work conflicts with having a “normal” lifestyle; the intense competition between the political candidates; public animosity toward CNN and other media outlets that get criticism for being “fake news”; and issues such as racism, sexism and the massive divide between Democratic and Republican politics.

Culture Audience: “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” will appeal primarily to people interested in how CNN reporters work behind the scenes, because there’s very little in the documentary that includes exclusive access to the political candidates.

Kyung Lah and Jasmine Wright in “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” (Photo courtesy of CNN/HBO Max)

HBO Max’s “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,” produced by CNN Films, is part behind-the-scenes documentary, part promotional vehicle for CNN on how the network covered the U.S presidential primary campaigns of 2020. (HBO Max and CNN share the same parent company: AT&T’s WarnerMedia.) Because this documentary was intended to make CNN look good, people who hate CNN probably won’t be interested in watching, unless CNN haters (who love to call CNN “fake news”) are curious to see how critics of CNN are depicted in this film.

For everyone else—people who like CNN or people who are neutral about CNN—the movie gives some insight into not just the political campaigns but also about the employee politics of working for CNN. The documentary definitely puts CNN in a positive light. But there are some cracks that show how CNN, which has an image of being “left-leaning” and “liberal,” has some work to do in practicing the progressive ideals preached by CNN’s opinionated anchors and hosts, who are the collective voice of the network. (There’s no director credited for the entire documentary, which has the executive producers listed as Amy Entelis, Katie Hinman, Toby Oppenheimer and Courtney Sexton.)

Perhaps to try to deflect criticism of CNN being a male-dominated company (just like many news/journalism companies tend to be male-dominated), “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” only focuses on the female CNN journalists who were assigned coverage of various U.S. presidential candidates. There were many more Democratic candidates than Republican candidates (with Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, since he had no real competition in the Republican Party), so most of the documentary is about coverage of the Democratic candidates.

The documentary gives a brief explanation of the hierarchy of campaign assignments at CNN and other major TV news companies like CNN, by describing the difference between a correspondent and an embed. A correspondent is assigned to cover a particular candidate’s campaign and make their reports on camera, while an embed is the lower-level person assigned to cover a particular candidate’s campaign by doing all the traveling to follow the candidate.

Embeds do a lot of the behind-the-scenes grunt work, while correspondents (who typically have more job experience) have more flexible hours and get the glory of being on TV. A correspondent usually has at least one embed counterpart who can do the correspondent’s work if the correspondent isn’t available. That doesn’t mean that correspondents don’t have to do a lot of traveling. It just means that correspondents get to travel less than the embeds.

Therefore, the embeds tend to be younger employees, who usually don’t have children. It’s mentioned many times in the documentary how this type of journalism is very hard on raising children and maintaining committed relationships. It’s also implied, but not said outright, that women are judged more harshly than men for having these jobs that take time away from their loved ones.

The CNN employees featured in the documentary are:

  • Dana Bash, chief political correspondent
  • Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent, assigned to cover Republican candidate Donald Trump
  • Jessica Dean, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Joe Biden
  • Daniella Diaz, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren
  • Annie Grayer, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders
  • Kyung Lah, senior national correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar
  • MJ Lee, political correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg
  • Abby Phillip, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg
  • Arlette Saenz, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Joe Biden
  • Jasmine Wright, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar

Throughout the documentary, it’s clear that for all the money that CNN spent to put these journalists on the campaign trail, the political candidates featured in this documentary didn’t really single out CNN as the “go to” outlet to do in-depth, one-on-one interviews with any of the journalists featured in the documentary. The only one-on-one interview time that’s shown in the documentary is a quick interview (lasting maybe a few minutes) that CNN’s Phillip did with Buttigieg after a campaign speech. The majority of the time, the CNN journalists are lumped in with the rest of the press corps, who end up getting the same candidate soundbites at a speech or rally, whether the cameras are stationed on a platform or are following a candidate like a pack of vultures.

There is no footage of the journalists on the candidates’ buses or traveling with the presidential candidates by plane. (By contrast, Showtime’s political news docuseries “The Circus” has this type of footage.) There’s no footage of a candidate in a personal or informal setting. Instead, there’s a lot of footage of the CNN journalists in their homes or hotel rooms, packing suitcases or getting ready for their next trip. As Diaz says in the documentary, “I stalk presidential candidates for a living.”

By the time this documentary premiered on HBO Max, it was already known which Democrat in the race was the last one standing (Joe Biden). And that’s why there’s no real suspense in seeing the ups and downs of certain candidates’ campaigns. Therefore, the documentary spends a lot of time giving background stories on several of the CNN journalists who are featured.

Out of all the journalists in the documentary, Bash has been with CNN the longest. She joined CNN in 1993, not long after graduating from George Washington University. She admits that she’s been “lucky” to have been given the opportunities that she’s had. (Most on-air journalists at CNN usually have to spend years paying their dues working at local news stations before getting a job at a national network such as CNN.)

And she says of her political coverage of this election cycle: “I get to have a front-row seat to history.” It’s an apt description, since she spends more time seated in front of a camera than traveling on the campaign trail with the candidates, compared to her CNN colleagues who are featured in the documentary. Out of all the CNN journalists featured in this documentary, Bash has the highest position in the employee hierarchy. And with that ranking comes the privilege of not having to travel so much, but she still has to work under a 24-hour news cycle where anything can happen.

Bash says in the documentary, “I’m so lucky that I get to work with so many young women. I know what it was like for me when I was younger, to have somebody help me keep perspective, and so I really try to do that with them.” However, the documentary doesn’t actually show Bash do any mentoring, other than a few sentences of encouragement that Bash gives to Diaz during some free time in a hotel’s event area after a candidate’s appearance. If Bash does in fact devote significant time mentoring her younger colleagues, it’s not in the documentary.

Bash, who has a son named Jonah (born in 2011) with her second ex-husband John King (who’s also a CNN correspondent), is shown talking about the difficulties of balancing raising a child with a busy career that doesn’t have regular 9 to 5 hours. While in the CNN studios, Bash and King are seen doing a video conference chat with Jonah. There’s no mention of who’s at home watching their son while they’re at work, but Bash and King make the type of CNN salaries where they can easily afford a nanny. A lot of people watching this documentary know that being able to afford great child care isn’t a problem for a CNN star like it is for a lot of average working folks. Therefore, Bash won’t get much sympathy from viewers, especially since a lot of people already think that CNN stars are “out of touch” with their “privilege.”

Whatever salary Lah is making at CNN, it’s obviously not nearly as much as Bash’s salary, because Lah doesn’t have outside help in raising her children. Lah’s husband stays home and watches their two kids while Lah is at work. Lah (who worked in Japan as a TV journalist before joining CNN) says that her husband, who used to work at ABC News, had to make sacrifices in his career in order to have the time to take care of their children: “He’s definitely taking the professional hit, in order for me to do what I’m doing.”

Lah adds, “If you were to ask my kids, they’d tell you that they don’t like my job at all.” However, Lah says she loves doing this kind of journalism and wouldn’t trade it for any other career. “In order to tell the story, you have to go to the story,” she comments on all the travel required for her job. Lah is a straight-talking, often foul-mouthed, sometimes abrasive journalist who comes across as more “real” than some of her CNN colleagues in the documentary who seem afraid of admitting to having any flaws or painful experiences in their past.

Lah opens up about how being a Korean immigrant and coming from a working-class background are indelible to who she is and how she approaches reporting, since she can relate to the people whose struggles are often ignored by politicians. Lah says that her parents had master’s degrees when they immigrated to America, but because of language barriers, they couldn’t get jobs in their desired fields. Instead, her parents owned and operated a store, which eventually went bankrupt. Lah breaks down and cries when she says that she spent so much time working in the store, she remembers what the inside of the store looked like more than she remembers what her childhood home looked like.

According to Lah, her immigrant background made her strive hard to achieve the American Dream that her parents didn’t quite have. A few moments of comic relief are in the documentary when Lah’s mother calls her, almost like a mother in a sitcom, to nag Lah about her job and not being at home with her kids. Lah says that her mother sometimes drives her crazy with these calls, to the point where she no longer tells her mother where she is going when she has to travel for her job. Even though Lah acts annoyed by her mother at times, it’s obvious that they have a lot of deep love for each other.

Bash and Lah are the only female CNN journalists in the documentary who were in these two categories when this documentary was being filmed: (1) mothers and (2) over the age of 40. Whereas Bash doesn’t really express concerns about her job security (in an industry where getting older can be more harmful to a woman’s career than a man’s career), Lah says that complacency is not an option for herself. Lah is also candid in saying that, as a woman color, part of her drive to work extra hard comes from knowing that racists will see her as “less than,” just because she isn’t white, and she wants to prove the naysayers wrong.

Wright also has a similar outlook on life, so that’s probably why the documentary shows that she and Lah have a special bond, which they both talk about in the film. It’s a mentor/protégée type of relationship where it’s obvious that they really enjoy working together and respect each other. It’s a great example of the type of female empowerment in the workplace where women can help each other, and it’s not about bashing or badmouthing men.

A proud native of Chicago, Wright seems to have been born to work in politics in some way, since her parents took her to political rallies and events, ever since she was a child. She also comes from a well-educated family. Her mother was a surgeon, and her father was a lawyer who was an aide to former Chicago mayor Harold Washington. Wright’s father also did presidential campaign work for Bill Clinton. She says of her politically active upbringing: “It really shaped my view of the impact that I wanted to have on the world.”

Out of all of the CNN journalists in the documentary, Wright is the most outspoken about how being a woman of color affects her job at CNN. Wright says in the documentary that she told CNN bosses early on that CNN needed to cover Klobuchar’s record of siding with police officers accused of unlawful killings of black men, when Klobuchar was a county attorney in Minnesota, before Klobuchar became a Minnesota U.S. Senator. Wright says that her CNN bosses told her that it wouldn’t be a good time to cover it because the New Hampshire primaries were coming up.

“There’s always [supposed to be] a time for this story!” Wright says in exasperation, as she mentions that she could’ve reported this story first if she hadn’t been stonewalled by her CNN bosses, whom she does not name on camera. Later, when Klobuchar’s county prosecutor record was fully exposed and covered by the media, Klobuchar awkwardly defended herself in interviews when she was asked if her county prosecution record made her look too sympathetic to police accused of racist brutality. Her fading presidential campaign took a big hit and never recovered.

During the final days of the Klobuchar 2020 campaign, Wright comments that it’s ironic that she is the only African American embed at CNN, and it’s for the remaining Democratic candidate who has the least amount of support from black voters. It’s a pointed comment to let people watching the documentary know that even though CNN has an image of promoting “liberal” politics, it still has problems with racial diversity when it comes to the journalists they hire and promote. As of this writing, CNN has no women of color anchoring any of the weekday newscasts, which have higher ratings and more prestige than the weekend newscasts.

Just like Lah, Diaz also comes from a working-class immigrant background (her parents are from Mexico) and is very close to her mother. Diaz wears her mother’s wedding ring and engagement ring as unusual good-luck gifts that her mother gives her—an indication of how highly Diaz’s family must think of her to entrust her with wearing that jewelry in a job where Diaz has to frequently travel and be in large crowds.

Diaz says she grew up poor in McCallen, Texas. Her parents came to the United States to give their family a better life and to pursue the American Dream. Diaz says that although she is very proud of her ethnicity, she constantly has to fight some people’s misperception that her ethnicity is a detriment to her qualifications as a news journalist. Diaz comments that it really irritates her when she’s told that “being white is objective, and being Latina is biased.”

Diaz, Lah and Wright all say that because America is continuing to be more racially diverse, being a woman of color in U.S. journalism matters for an accurate representation of what the U.S. population looks like. And it’s pointed out in the documentary that although Republican presidential candidates generally don’t need a lot of people of color to vote for them to win, the opposite is true of Democratic presidential candidates. Biden’s major comeback in winning the 2020 South Carolina caucus is shown as proof (he went from the middle of the pack in the Democratic candidate polls to first place), since his victory was significantly boosted by black voters.

Collins, the only CNN journalist in the documentary whose job is to cover a Republican presidential candidate, talks about coming from a family and community in Alabama which are mostly Republican and very pro-Donald Trump. Since Trump’s hatred of CNN is well-documented, Collins obviously doesn’t get to interview him. Instead, the documentary shows Trump and his supporters at some of his rallies. When Trump brings up “fake news” and the media, the crowds boo, and Collins looks both embarrassed and defensive.

Collins doesn’t reveal what her political views are, but she does comment in the documentary: “I don’t think that people think about what they’re saying when they say, ‘Fake news.’” She adds that people’s general perception of the media is that “We all think alike and act alike.”

It’s a very myopic and untrue statement, because there are plenty of media outlets to serve all kinds of people, whether their politics are conservative, liberal or somewhere in between. In fact, conservative-leaning Fox News gets higher ratings than liberal-leaning CNN and MNSBC. Clearly, there are millions of people who don’t believe everyone in the media thinks alike, by virtue of the fact that numerous media outlets exist for diverse groups of people. Collins seems like a nice person, but she’s not the smartest of this bunch of CNN employees in the documentary.

The documentary shows a little bit of socializing between the younger CNN employees, to give viewers an idea of what their camaraderie is like. Diaz, Grayer and Saenz are seen eating breakfast together at a diner and talking about how their work is affecting their love lives. (Not surprisingly, they all say that it’s hard to maintain a relationship because of all the traveling they have to do.) Diaz, Wright and Grayer are seen in a hotel room together, watching the Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas on February 19, 2020, and reacting to Warren’s tear-down of Bloomberg during the debate.

Diaz says that she’s not surprised that Warren was capable of that type of attack. Multiple times in the documentary, these CNN journalists say that they’ve become experts on the candidates they’re supposed to cover, but they don’t share any interesting anecdotes about things they learned about their candidates while following them on their campaigns. And the only time that the documentary shows something that’s close to these journalists getting a “scoop” is when Wright got a tip (that she passed on to Lah) that Klobuchar was going to end her campaign. The information turned out to be correct, so Lah was able to be one of the first TV journalists to report it.

The movie ends with the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to hit the United States, leading to campaign events being cancelled, and journalists having to social distance and doing their reporting from home. Lah ended up getting sick and had to quarantine herself, while the CNN journalists who covered presidential campaigns that ended had to stay at home and wait for their next assignments.

“On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” doesn’t have any surprising revelations about how the featured presidential candidates operated in their campaigns, and there are no interesting interviews with any of the candidates. Instead, the movie is more of a showcase of female journalists covering politics for CNN.

If CNN Films is making a documentary about CNN employees, there’s going to be an inherent bias. It’s impossible for most viewers to know how many negative things behind the scenes could have been edited out of the documentary. However, if people want to see a documentary about female colleagues in TV news where their work relationships are about camaraderie instead of catfights, then this movie serves that purpose.

HBO Max premiered “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” on August 6, 2020.

Review: ‘We Are the Radical Monarchs,’ starring Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest

July 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“We Are the Radical Monarchs”

Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the documentary film “We Are the Radical Monarchs” features a racially diverse group (African American, Asian and Latino) of parents, women and girls who are involved in the Radical Monarchs, a social-justice group for girls of color that was formed in Oakland as an alternative to the Girl Scouts.

Culture Clash: The Radical Monarchs are taught politically progressive ideals, but the group gets criticism from conservatives who think the group is inappropriate for children or exclusionary of white people.

Culture Audience: “We Are the Radical Monarchs” will appeal primarily to politically liberal people or people who believe in social-justice groups.

A scene from “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

How young is too young for kids to learn about social-justice activism? That’s up to children’s parents or legal guardians, but the documentary “We Are the Radical Monarchs” shows how two unapologetically liberal-minded women in the San Francisco Bay Area decided to form a social-activist group for girls called the Radical Monarchs, as an alternative to the non-political Girl Scouts.

Directed in cinéma vérité style by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, “We Are the Radical Monarchs” (which was filmed from 2015 to 2017) obviously won’t appeal to everyone politically, but at the very least it shows how the members of the Radical Monarchs are being taught to express their rights to free speech in their quest to make the world a more open-minded and tolerant place. The girls in the documentary are bright, inquisitive and respectful of each other and of adults.

The Radical Monarchs launched in December 2014, in Oakland, California, when co-founder Anayvette Martinez, a single mother, saw that her then-10-year-old daughter Lupita was part of a Girl Scout troop that treated issues related to people of color as secondary or not as important as other issues. As Martinez says in the documentary, “I wanted her to have a troop that centered her as a girl of color.”

Martinez (who was a community organizer at the time) joined forces with like-minded Marilyn Hollinquest to co-found the Radical Monarchs specifically for girls of color and as a way to teach them to be involved in social-justice issues. They decided to affiliate the Radical Monarchs with Black Lives Matter, after being inspired by the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown (an 18-year-old unarmed African American) by white police officer Darren Wilson.

The documentary shows Martinez and Hollinquest leading the Radical Monarchs’ first troop (with girls ranging in ages from 8 to 11) in discussions about race, gender identity, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, peaceful protests, immigration, affordable housing, civil rights and fighting against discrimination. The Radical Monarchs often have guest speakers (who are usually activists) at their meetings. Transgender women and people with disabilities are among those shown in the documentary as guest speakers.

And just like the Girl Scouts, the Radical Monarchs get badges. But the Radical Monarchs badges are for achievements in political activism and social justice, rather than specific careers or non-political hobbies. (Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza is shown attending a few Radical Monarchs events as a show of support, such as when she hands out merit badges.) And even though the Radical Monarchs are not old enough to vote, the girls are very politically involved, since the documentary shows them doing things such as attending protests and marches (including the 2017 Women’s March in San Francisco); speaking at city council meetings; and visiting with politicians in California’s state capital of Sacramento.

Hollinquest (who has a background as a development director dealing with laborer rights) explains the need for the Radical Monarchs to exist: “Youth get underestimated a lot [for] how much they see, hear and know. And because of the adults around them being uncomfortable talking about topics, then things don’t get talked about. So, for us, the Radical Monarchs is the safe place where they can come. We are trained, and we can talk about these issues in a comfortable way.”

Martinez and Hollinquest met while they were in graduate school at San Francisco State University. Both women say in the documentary that they identify as “queer” (Martinez and Hollinquest are just friends, not a couple) and outspoken feminists. In addition, Hollinquest and Martinez say that they are teaching their Radical Monarch members to have progressive views, but they also encourage the girls to always ask questions about what they are taught and what they see around them.

The documentary shows that self-acceptance, inclusion and standing up for others who are being discriminated against are values that are constantly being taught to the girls. There are question-and-answer sessions where the girls are allowed to ask anything they want. And they are encouraged to support each other like sisters. For example, when one of the girls breaks down and cries when remembering how she was bullied in school because of her skin color, the other Radical Monarchs rally around to hug her and comfort her.

And the girls are taught to look carefully at the media to understand that who controls a media outlet has a lot to do with how that media outlet shapes stories and puts out certain images. For example, in a session called Radical Fashion, members of the Radical Monarchs are shown two different female-oriented magazines—InStyle and Ms.—and asked to point out the differences in how women and girls are portrayed in each magazine. Not surprisingly, the girls say that they think Ms. portrays the female gender more realistically and has smarter articles. The girls are then told that Ms. magazine was founded and is owned by women, while InStyle is not.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” thankfully doesn’t get distracted with bogging down the documentary with “expert” political commentary from people who have nothing to do with the organization. Instead, the filmmakers let the interview commentary come directly from people who are involved with the Radical Monarchs, as members, leaders or parents. For example, when the Radical Monarchs visit the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento, the film shows highlights of the visit as the girls interact with the politicians there (such as state senator Holly Mitchell), rather than pivot to overstuffing the documentary with separate interviews with the politicians.

One of the Radical Monarch girls named De’yani, who’s interviewed in the documentary, comments on being the only African American girl in her Girl Scouts troop. By contrast, in the Radical Monarchs, she says, “You get to learn cool stuff about social justice and race, compared to talking about selling cookies and money and stuff.”

Indeliso Carillo, a mother of one of the Radical Monarch girls, comments: “So many of our kids feel invisible. And this is a place for them to not feel invisible and to really develop into believing that they have a place here and a voice that needs to be heard.” Laticia Erving, another mother of a Radical Monarch, adds: “Radical Monarchs gives her a sisterhood of young girls who look like her. Their focus is making a change in the world.”

The documentary also addresses the criticism, ridicule and hate that the Radical Monarchs get from people who think the group is damaging to children. Archival clips from Fox News are included as expressing some of this criticism, which usually argues that the girls are being “brainwashed” and that the Radical Monarchs are a “racist” group.

Although the Radical Monarchs leaders do not say explicitly say that white girls are not allowed to join the group, the larger question that the documentary filmmakers should have asked is, “How many white girls have wanted to join the Radical Monarchs?” Because if the answer is “none,” then there’s no racist discrimination. But if white girls wanted to join but were turned away (and the documentary did not present any evidence that this has happened), then that would definitely be racial discrimination.

It also speaks to another big question: “How many white parents would feel comfortable letting their child join a group where a white person would be in the racial minority and the group discusses uncomfortable topics such as racism against people of color?” The Radical Monarchs leaders say that their members already know what it’s like to live every day in a country where they are a racial minority and treated like a second-class citizen just because of their race. And that’s why the group was created in the first place: so that their members can be in a group where being a non-white person isn’t a “minority” stigma.

Rene Quinonez, a father of one of the Radical Monarchs, comments on the current reality of living in the United States: “White folks set the standards of beauty … education … everything in our community. That’s a huge injustice. When we create a space for these young women, it’s not excluding everyone. It’s about recognizing the injustice of these women not having this space [in the overall U.S. population].”

One of the most emotionally moving scenes in the documentary is when the Radical Monarchs visit with former Black Panther Party member Cheryl Dawson, who tells them what it was like to fight for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the girls asks Dawson if police brutality has gotten better or worse since the days when she was a Black Panther. Her chilling response: “It’s gotten worse.”

Several of the adults in the documentary (including Dawson and Radical Monarchs co-founders Martinez and Hollinquest) say that they wish that they had a group like the Radical Monarchs when they were kids. It’s mentioned many times in the film that one of the biggest issues facing the group leaders is how to expand their program, since they are constantly being asked if they will start Radical Monarchs chapters in cities outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.

As with many start-up nonprofits, fundraising and not having enough money are major issues. And the documentary shows how grass-roots the Radical Monarchs organization was in its first few years: The group didn’t have an official office and instead worked out of Martinez’s home. However, the Radical Monarchs did get a lot of media coverage almost from the beginning of their launch. That exposure was crucial in helping their name recognition and building on that success.

The documentary also gives a personal background on Martinez and Hollinquest, who say that even though they share the same political ideals (and coincidentally, the same birthday), they have very different upbringings and personalities.

Martinez, who says she’s the more extroverted co-founder, grew up in San Francisco as the daughter of Central American immigrants. Her mother was a feminist and her “biggest advocate” who encouraged Martinez to get a college education, while Martinez’s conservative father expected her to have a more old-fashioned lifestyle. Martinez says she was the first openly queer female editor-in-chief of the California-based college student newspaper La Gente, and she got a lot of death threats because of it.

Hollinquest, who says she’s more introverted than Martinez, grew up in a strict Pentecostal household in the rural city of Tulare, California. Her parents were so conservative that Hollinquest says that she wasn’t allowed to wear trousers when she was a child. And she was also taught that women had to be submissive to men. Needless to say, her coming out as queer must have been a shock to her family, although Hollinquest doesn’t go into details over what that experience was like for her. She’s obviously in a place of self-acceptance now, and is spreading that self-acceptance message to girls who might not get that support in their own homes or at school.

A great deal of the documentary shows how Martinez and Hollinquest launched Troop 2 for the Radical Monarchs while still leading Troop 1 and while still working in their day jobs. It’s as exhausting as it sounds. Fortunately, they had plenty of volunteers who eventually came on board to lead Troop 2. The documentary includes footage of Martinez and Hollinquest having meetings planning their goals for the Radical Monarchs’ growth and expansion.

Some of the girls (including Martinez’s daughter Lupita) helped evaluate potential leaders of Troop 2 and gave their feedback on which ones they thought were the best. Lupita is one of the most articulate and poised girls in the group, but there are no signs that she let her mother’s Radical Monarchs position of power go to her head. And when Lupita tells an emotional story about how she and her mother were evicted from their home after the landlord raised the rent to an amount they could no longer afford, it isn’t with a self-pitying attitude but with a take-charge positive attitude that the experience fuels their fire to fight for affordable housing for people who are less fortunate.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” doesn’t try to hide that it’s heavily biased toward liberal causes and the Democratic Party. (The documentary includes the expected reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) But putting party politics aside, this documentary is a fascinating look at how girls are speaking out and taking action for human-rights issues that matter deeply to them. And it wouldn’t be surprising if some Radical Monarchs alumni get elected to political office someday.

PBS premiered “We Are the Radical Monarchs” as part of the “POV” series on July 20, 2020.

Review: ‘Irresistible’ (2020), starring Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis and Rose Byrne

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/ Focus Features)


Directed by Jon Stewart

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, the political comedy “Irresistible” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-profile and experienced Democrat National Committee strategist arrives in Deerlaken because he thinks he can groom a future Democratic presidential candidate by getting him elected as a Democrat mayor of Deerlaken, but this mayoral campaign faces stiff competition from the campaign of the Republican incumbent.

Culture Audience: “Irresistible” will appeal mostly to fans of Steve Carell and political comedies, but the movie is nothing more than a series of lazy stereotypes.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/Focus Features)

Contrary to what it looks like in the trailer for the political comedy “Irresistible,” this smug and annoying movie is not centered on a possible romance between Democrat National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (played by Steve Carell) and Republican National Committee strategist Faith Brewster (played by Rose Byrne), as they’re pitted against each other in a mayoral campaign battle in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Byrne’s Faith Brewster character isn’t in the movie every much, even though photos and images of Byrne in the movie’s marketing materials make it appear is if she’s a co-lead actor in the movie. She’s not. She has a small supporting role.

Instead, “Irresistible” (written and directed by Jon Stewart) is very much enamored with making the condescending, posturing “liberal” Gary Zimmer the center of the story. It’s at least commendable that “Irresistible” did not try to completely copy the “love/hate/we know they’re going to get together” relationship of political opposites that was on display in director Ron Underwood’s critically panned 1994 comedy flop “Speechless.” Geena Davis and Michael Keaton starred in “Speechless” as political speechwriters working on rival campaigns—a story inspired by the real-life romance of James Carville and Mary Matalin, except that in “Speechless,” the woman was the Democrat and the man was the Republican.

In “Irresistible,” Gary is the worst kind of liberal: He thinks he’s open-minded and progressive, but he has the same old-fashioned stereotypical beliefs about women and people of color as the conservatives he says he despises. It’s unclear if writer/director Stewart (who is an outspoken liberal in real life) intentionally set out to do a satire of this type of self-congratulatory liberal, but the end result is a comedy film that takes itself way too seriously.

And, quite frankly, the screenwriting for “Irresistible” isn’t very good at all. Just because Stewart wrote a lot of jokes and won several Emmys when he hosted “The Daily Show” from 1999 to 2015, that doesn’t mean he’s a talented screenwriter for movies. “Irresistible” (not to be confused with the 2006 “Irresistible” love-triangle drama, starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt) is also an odd name for a political satire/comedy, since many people find politics to be the opposite of irresistible and actually quite repellent—much like how the competing political strategists in this movie are repulsive characters.

“Irresistible” starts off with a montage of photos of U.S. presidential campaigns from various Republican and Democrat nominees, from 1968 to 2016. The movie then shows Gary and Faith experiencing Election Day for the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Faith is reveling in the victory of Donald Trump, while Gary is crushed by Hillary Clinton’s loss.

The rest of the story then pivots to Gary’s point of view, as Faith only pops up here and there for the rest of the movie. Gary comes across a viral video of a former Marine-turned-farmer in Deerlaken (pronounced “Deer-locken”), giving a passionate pro-immigration speech at a town council meeting about undocumented workers. That farmer is Jack Hastings (played by Chris Cooper, in one of his long list of “folksy, salt-of-the-earth” roles), a widower who tells an anti-immigration city official in front of the assembled crowd: “I’m not saying you’re a bad person. I think you’re scared.”

Gary tells his assembled team at his headquarters in Washington, D.C., that this farmer could be a promising candidate to win a future U.S. presidential election because Jack is a hero ex-Marine who looks conservative but talks progressive. As far as Gary can tell, Jack is not affiliated with any political party and has no political aspirations, but Gary thinks he’s come up with a brilliant idea to groom Jack into a Democrat: Gary wants to go to Deerlaken to help Jack run for mayor.

“He’s a Democrat but just doesn’t know it,” Gary says arrogantly about Jack. Gary also crudely describes Jack to his team as “a man who makes Joe the Plumber look like [1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis in mom jeans and a fucking Easter bonnet.” This “joke” only works with people who know about U.S. presidential campaigns from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When Gary tells his team that he wants to get Jack elected, it’s a problematic scene that reduces the few people of color in the scene (three Latino men and one black woman) as tokens who only speak up when Gary talks about needing representation from their racial groups. He condescendingly tells them that Hillary Clinton lost the election because not enough black people and Latinos showed up to vote for her. (Gary conveniently forgets to mention all the white citizens who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, even though Obama campaigned for her.)

Debra Messing has a brief, uncredited cameo in the scene as another “liberal” DNC staffer who thinks she knows best, by saying the best strategy for Democrats to win the next presidential election is to get more black and Latino citizens to vote. The Latino men in the meeting agree, and join hands with the Debra Messing character, while shutting out the black woman sitting in between them. The men utter something in Spanish in solidarity.

The only black DNC staffer (played by Denise Moyé) in the meeting speaks up, by saying that she agrees with Gary’s idea of expanding the Democrats’ base and not taking votes for granted. The Debra Messing character (who also doesn’t have a name in the movie) sheepishly agrees.

It’s a cringeworthy, pandering and poorly written/depicted scene. The one thing that’s fairly accurate is how Gary, like a lot of people in power, think they can speak for all racial groups on their team, without actually checking to see how the team members from different racial groups actually feel about those topics.

At any rate, by the time Gary and his nearly all-white team head to the nearly all-white Deerlaken, his massive ego thinks that he can roll into town and tell these people what to do because he’s a big-city intellectual liberal who’s a big-shot strategist from the DNC. Of course, the movie’s biggest credibility plot hole is that in real life, a political strategist with this amount of clout would not waste all this time to get a small-town mayor elected. Why? There’s not enough money in it for the strategist.

Gary convinces Jack to run for mayor as a Democrat by saying things like: “I know you don’t think of yourself as a Democrat, but after hearing your speech, I can assure you, you are. And I would like to offer you my company services to do so … Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you.”

Faith finds out that Gary is in this small town for this campaign, so she shows up in Deerlaken to be the strategist for the Republican incumbent Mayor Braun (played by Brent Sexton), because apparently she has nothing better to do with her time either. Faith and Mayor Braun don’t get nearly as much screen time in the movie as Gary and Jack do, but these sparsely written Republican characters are also written as stereotypes. Faith could easily pass for a Fox News anchor, while Mayor Braun uses Republican tropes in his campaign, such as the love of God, guns and country folks.

Multiple times in the movie, “Irresistible” makes a heavy-handed point about campaign finances and how money can corrupt politicians. Gary is obviously in politics for the money and power. Therefore, it doesn’t ring true that someone like him would get so caught up in a small-time mayoral campaign. It seems like this common sense was thrown out the window when Stewart was writing the screenplay, whose only purpose seems to be portraying people in the political process as broad clichés.

When Gary arrives in Deerlaken, all the predictable stereotypes are on display.  (Although Deerlaken is supposed to be in Wisconsin, the movie’s Deerlaken scenes were actually filmed in Rockmart, Georgia.) The only thing that Stewart didn’t do to add to the condescending stereotypes of Midwestern rural people is have anyone chew on hayseed.

The volunteers for Jack’s campaign aren’t very smart, which is the movie’s way of saying that people in this area are very uneducated. When the volunteers start calling people on their phone lists, they find out they’re accidentally calling each other at campaign headquarters instead of voters, because the volunteers mistook the office phone list for the voters phone list. And it takes Gary to point out this mistake to them. That’s how “dumb” these locals are.

Gary is staying a motel where the motel bar is also the “front desk.” It’s a bar where men wear flannel shirts and have names like Big Mike (played by Will Sasso) and Little Mike (played by Will McLaughlin) and don’t seem to have an education past high school. The motel and the town are so “behind the times” that they don’t even have Wi-Fi or broadband service throughout most of the town. They mostly access the Internet through dial-up service. The annoying screech of a dial-up modem connection is a running “joke” in the film.

And there’s a badly written scene of Gary and some of the men on his team parked in a car outside the town’s high school, one of the few places with Wi-Fi access. Gary and his team are asked to leave, but they refuse, so they get kicked out of the parking lot because the school’s security people think it’s a car full of possible sexual predators.

Even when Gary gives a lustful stare when he first sees Jack’s 28-year-old daughter Diana (played by Mackenzie Davis) at Jack’s farm, that lust turns to some disgust when he sees that she’s got her hand up the rear end of a cow. For most of the movie, Gary and his team underestimate Diana’s intelligence because they think she’s an ignorant farmer’s daughter who doesn’t know much about politics. It still doesn’t stop Gary from flirting with Diana, but he’s mostly focused on winning the campaign for Jack.

Two of the people on Gary’s team are nerdy pollster Kurt (played by Topher Grace) and abrasive digital analytics strategist Tina (played by Natasha Lyonne), who clash with each over about how they think their respective voter analysis is better. Tina huffs when she dismisses Kurt’s polling numbers by saying that people’s computer usage is a more accurate picture of who voters are: “A digital footprint is your true self.”

When Kurt and Tina get into a little verbal tiff during a campaign meeting, Diana speaks up and says to Tina, “Surely, people are more complete than their online transactions.” Tina snaps back, “Says the woman with three cats and intense [Internet] search history of the herpes virus.” This is what’s supposed to pass as humor in this movie.

In fact, there’s very little humor to be found in “Irresistible,” which is a waste of this talented cast. Faith and Gary have some obvious sexual tension with each other, but it’s written in such an off-putting way that it’s just not as funny as Stewart probably thought it was when he wrote the script.

For example, there’s one scene where Faith calls Gary “fat,” and then she gives him a long lick on his face like it’s an ice cream cone. In another scene, Gary and Faith have an argument and then say that whichever of them loses the election will have to perform oral sex on the other for an hour. This oral sex “dare” is described in much cruder terms in the movie.

By the end of “Irresistible,” there’s kind of a dumb plot twist that reiterates some of the preachy messages of the film. But this plot twist doesn’t matter too much, because the entire plot of a strategist like Gary being in a small town like Deerlaken was an ill-conceived idea in the first place. And “Irresistible” also has an unnecessary gimmick of showing three different epilogues (the last epilogue in the film is supposed to be the “real” one), even going as far as having the end credits start to roll during each epilogue, just to trick/confuse viewers over which epilogue is “real.”

With so many U.S. citizens in real life who are already cynical or apathetic about politics, “Irresistible” isn’t going to make people feel good about participating in the political process. And although “Irresistible” is obviously influenced by “The Candidate” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it definitely won’t be considered a classic like those films.

Focus Features released “Irresistible” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD.

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