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 to 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 ae 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 either 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 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, so 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 being a Korean immigrant and how 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 has “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 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)

“Irresistible” 

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 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 as 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.

Some of the people on Gary’s team include 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.

Review: ‘Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections,’ starring Harri Hursti, Sue Halper, James Lankford, Jake Stauffer, Jeff Moss, Sandy Clark and Philip Stark

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections”

Directed by Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of cyber hacking on U.S. elections, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including cybersecurity experts, government officials, journalists, university professors and hackers.

Culture Clash: Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary says that there is widespread denial or suppression of information about hacking and other manipulation of voting machines in the U.S. election system.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who want to know more about how voting in the U.S. works behind the scenes, even if what’s uncovered might be disturbing.

Voting booths in “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

When people vote in elections, are their votes really safe from hacking or other illegal manipulation? Absolutely not, say the experts and other officials interviewed in the chilling documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.” The movie’s directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale focus on U.S. elections that have taken place since 2016. “Kill Chain” sounds the alarm that sinister forces that are inside and outside the U.S. are working to manipulate elections that are happening in 2020 and beyond.

Ardizzone and Michaels directed another HBO documentary that covered a similar topic—2006’s “Hacking Democracy,” which featured election security expert Harri Hursti (a native of Finland) showing how easy it was to hack into a voting machine. Hursti is prominently featured in “Kill Chain,” to the point where he could’ve almost been the film’s narrator. He’s definitely the star of the movie, since the filmmakers follow him going to various U.S. states to investigate the current state of voting machines used in U.S. elections and probable cases of voting fraud in recent elections.

Because voting methods in the U.S. are usually determined by counties within a state, there are vastly different voting machines that are used across the United States. Most voting machines, even if they use paper, still rely on computers for scanning. In addition, many voting places use computerized machines not just for ballots but also to verify identification and residential addresses of voters. Because the trend in newer voting machines is to become more computerized (including machines that turn votes into barcodes), several people in the “Kill Chain” documentary say these computer revamps will leave these machines more vulnerable to being hacked.

The “Kill Chain” documentary gets its name from the “divide and conquer” concept of how one entity can conquer another through a chain of events. As Hursti explains in the documentary, it’s a five step-process: (1) Reconnaissance, which is gathering information about the enemy’s landscape); (2) Identify, which is seeing who the targets are; (3) Weaponize; (4) Paralyze; and (5) Attack. When voting systems are manipulated and hacked, it means that the attacker is in the “weaponize” phase.

Throughout the movie, Russia is repeatedly mentioned as the country that’s most likely to hack a voting system—and not just in the U.S., but in other countries, particularly in Europe. However, “Kill Chain” also makes it clear that voting fraud can easily be perpetrated by Americans in U.S. elections, from the highest federal levels to the smallest local governments.

Hursti says in the beginning of the film: “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This is our common problem, owned by everyone living in the United States. And we have to solve it in order to preserve our way of life, our society, the rule of law, and our right to self-govern.”

He adds, “The key element to restore the votes is a removable medium,” such as flash drives or hard drives, which most voting machines have. Once those drives are removable on a voting machine, says Hursti: “Every step of the way, it’s vulnerable to attack.”

The movie shows that there are certain signs that indicate a voting site has probably been hacked: Numerous people at the site have problems with their ballots being processed. Another red flag is when voters arrive at the site, they are detained or turned away because the computer system at the site shows inaccuracies in the voters’ names or registration addresses. And these problems usually result in long lines of people waiting for several hours to cast a vote, going well beyond an acceptable wait time for casting a ballot. These long lines cause numerous people to either leave or not get a chance to vote before the polling site closes.

“When you prevent people from casting a ballot, you’ve hacked an election,” comments Sue Halper, an author and contributor to The New Yorker. Michael Daniel, who was a White House cybersecurity coordinator from 2012 to 2020, says that a voter registration database is the part of a computerized election system that is the most vulnerable to hacking.

The “Kill Chain” documentary uses the contentious 2018 election of Georgia’s governor as an example of an election that showed signs of being hacked and other voter fraud. For starters, Republican candidate Brian Kemp had a conflict of interest because in 2018, when he was Georgia secretary of state, he moved Georgia’s Center of Election Systems (CES) to his office, where he oversaw CES. Kemp’s Democrat opponent Stacey Abrams and her supporters repeatedly called for Kemp to recuse himself from overseeing the election, due to this conflict of interest. But the protests were to no avail, because Kemp stayed in the position that gave him the power to oversee the voting process of his own election.

Then, on election day (November 6, 2018), there were widespread reports of voting machine “malfunctions” and long lines in districts of Georgia that were heavily populated with people of color and/or registered Democrats. In addition, even before election day, there were reports of thousands of voter registrations being purged from computer systems and 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.

The voting results were so close that it took 10 days and a recount for the official tally to be announced. Kemp ended up winning by 1.4% more votes than Abrams. The political group Fair Fight Action, which is backed by Abrams, then sued the Georgia board of elections in November 2018, and included allegations of voter suppression in the complaint. As of this writing, the lawsuit has not been resolved.

As a result of these numerous claims that the election was tainted by voter fraud and problematic AccuVote machines, Georgia stopped using AccuVote machines. However, the documentary mentions that Georgia is now using Dominion’s barcode voting machines (which make the votes impossible to count by human eyes), thereby making the vote counting more computerized and more susceptible to hacking. It cost Georgia about $106 million to switch to these new voting machines, according to the documentary.

“Kill Chain” shows Hursti on that 2018 election day in Gwinnett County, Georgia, at one of the voting sites experiencing machine “malfunctions” and extremely long lines. (Many people were waiting up to five to seven hours to vote, according to news reports.) At the voting site, Hursti speaks to Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair Gabe Okoye, who expresses complete surprise when Hursti tells him that the county is using the same type of voting machine that Hursti was able to hack into in 2006.

In a separate post-election trip to Georgia, Hursti meets with Marilyn Marks of the Georgia-based grassroots organization Coalition of Good Governance, who was working at a voting site in Clarke County on that 2018 election day. She noticed that out of the seven machines used on that day at a heavily Democratic precinct, one machine was churning out ballots that were overwhelmingly showing votes cast for Republicans. The voting site’s exact voting results were public information.

For this trip to Georgia, Hursti invited Professor Philip Stark, who works in the statistics department at the University of California at Berkeley, and Stark’s assistant Dr. Kellie Ottobani, to run the statistics to find out the odds of that voting machine’s results being accurate at that polling site on that day. They found that there was less than a one-in-a-million chance that this outlier machine gave accurate results, based on the number of registered Democrats and Republicans who could vote at that voting site on that particular election day.

So with all this real and potential hacking going on, what’s being done about it? According to the people interviewed documentary, the companies in the business of making the machines want to do nothing. (The filmmakers note in the documentary that several of these companies were asked to participate in the film, but declined.) Some of the biggest suppliers of voting machines and/or software are companies such as Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), VR Systems and AccuVote.

Jake Stauffer, director of operations at cybersecurity firm Coherent Cyber, tells a story about how his company started a testing plan for voting machines, and the plan was approved by the state of California. Coherent Cyber used the testing plan on Dominion and ES&S voting machines and found “multiple vulnerabilities” (his words) that would allow hackers to change an election or shut the system down. But when those vulnerabilities were pointed out to Dominion and ES&S, both companies shut down the investigation and said that Coherent Cyber’s services were no longer needed.

Stauffer says, “How can a vendor sell a voting system with this many vulnerabilities? I can’t find a straight answer.” Jack Braun, who was the Department of Homeland Security White House Liaison from 2009 to 2011, agrees that companies that manufacture and sell voting machines and voting software cannot be counted on to take responsibility for hacking problems, since these companies usually deny that the problems exists. Braun says that these companies are the opposite of transparent when it comes to reporting security breaches with their machines or software.

What are politicians or other government officials doing about this problem? U.S. Senators such as James Lankford (a Republican from Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (a Democrat from Minnesota) and Mark Warner (a Democrat from Indiana) are among the co-sponsors of a bill called the Secure Elections Act, which gives the Department of Homeland Security the primary responsibility within the federal government for sharing information about cybersecurity hacking and vulnerabilities with federal entities and election agencies. “Kill Chain” notes that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a Republican) has repeatedly blocked this bill.

Lankford, Klobuchar, Warner and U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) are all interviewed in the documentary. Warner says the the U.S. should’ve seen warning signs that Russia would interfere in U.S. elections because back in 2011, Russia’s deputy defense minister Gen. Valery Gerasimov publicly made statements saying that Russia might not be able to compete with Western countries when it comes to military weapons, but Russia could compete when it comes to “cyberwars, disinformation and sowing dissension.”

Ion Sancho, who was supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, from 1988 to 2016, gives his own Russian hacking story in the documentary. In an interview with Hursti, Sancho says that sometime in 2016, he and other election supervisors were summoned by the FBI into a top-secret meeting, where on a conference call, the FBI issued a warning that a foreign power had penetrated an election vendor in Florida.

Sancho says, “It didn’t take us long to figure that they were talking about GIU, Russia’s military intelligence service, and the vendor was a Tallahassee vendor (VR Systems), which did all the programming for the majority of the counties in the state of Florida.” (The documentary also notes that VR Systems also supplies voting machines and services to the states of New York, California, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina.) Sancho goes on to say that Reality Winner—the former National Security Agency intelligence contractor who went to prison for leaking NSA documents that showed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—is a “heroine” for leaking the documents.

In order to illustrate how widespread the denial is over hacking of the voting system, the documentary shows a video montage of several government officials—including former FBI director James Comey and Election Assistance Commission chairman Thomas Hicks—giving Senate testimony saying some version of, “The voting system is not connected to the Internet,” as a way of denying that the system could be hacked. But then, after the video montage is played, Hursti shows several examples of exactly how voting machines are connected to the Internet and can be hacked.

In one example, Hursti and his business partner Maggie MacAlpine go to an Ohio business called eCycle Solutions that sells recycled products from a warehouse and on eBay. Hursti and MacAlpine buy some outdated voting machines called the AccuVote TSx, which is a type of voting machine that’s still being used in several U.S. counties. Hursti takes the computers and shows them to Professor J. Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan’s school of computer science and engineering, and they do an on-camera demonstration of how the computers need the Internet to process the information and can be hacked.

An even more dramatic demonstration of how voting machines are very easy to hack comes about midway through the documentary, when Hursti goes to Def Con (the annual computer-hacker convention in Las Vegas) and invites attendees into a room filled with different types of voting machines that are currently used in U.S. elections. With help from hacker Jeff Moss, also known as the Dark Tangent (who co-founded the hacker conventions Def Con and  Black Hat), Hursti tells the Def Con hackers that they have free reign to hack into the voting machines and show how it can be done. (The documentary notes that the companies whose machines were used were invited to this demonstration too, but they all declined to attend.) The Def Con “hackathon” test of the voting machines showed that all of the machines in the test were “effectively breached,” according to the documentary.

Douglas Lute, the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2013 to 2017, comments: “We need to shift the mentality away from the Internet being secure and no one is able to tamper with the American election system to the reality that has been demonstrated in 2016.”

One of the most memorable parts of the documentary is toward the end, which features an interview with a hacker in India who uses the alias Cyber Zeist. He does the interview while wearing a disguise and in entirely dark shadows so his face can’t be seen. However, his voice doesn’t seem to be altered.

Cyber Zeist gives a disturbing account of how he was able to hack into the elections computer system for the state of Alaska, and that he could’ve made a fortune (“millions”) from what he was able to find. “I could’ve made any changes to the system,” he brags. Cyber Zeist claims he just “looked around” and didn’t steal information, but Hursti believes that Cyber Zeist dropped enough hints in the interview to admit that a tool was deployed during the hacking session, and that Cyber Zeist might activate this tool later.

The documentary shows Hursti in Alaska meeting with former Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz, who plays excerpts of an audio recording of an interview that he did with former Alaska Elections director Josie Bahnke, who had the position from 2013 to 2018. In the interview, Bahnke says that during her tenure, the Alaska Elections website was hacked by Russians and an IP address from India, but that “there was no breach” because she claims that nothing was altered or stolen. The documentary doesn’t prove that Cyber Zeist was involved in hacking Alaska Elections, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions over how credible this mystery hacker is.

Although “Kill Chain” certainly delivers on presenting several points of view on cyber hacking of elections, what’s missing from the documentary are investigations on what can really be done to combat the problem. The documentary instead wastes some time showing Hursti going back to his hometown in Finland and visiting with his mother. He and his mother look through old photo albums and scrap books together. The only reason this hometown footage seems to be in the documentary is to show the audience that Hursti was a child prodigy in computer science. Instead of this filler and unnecessary footage, the documentary should have shown something more substantial, such as a look into what any grassroots organizations or coalitions are in the U.S. are doing to have voting systems that are the least likely to be hacked, since decisions about voting machines are made on the local level.

The closest the documentary offers to possible solutions is when it shows comments from some of the interviewees (such as statistics professor Stark), who believe that the best voting system to have is a voting system that can leave a paper trail where people can count paper ballot votes by hand, in case there are any disputes. Even though making voting machines more computerized is supposed to make the process easier, the more computerized these machines become, the more likely the election system can be hacked.

After watching this documentary, many people will probably feel the same way that University of Pennsylvania security researcher Sandy Clark feels, when she says: “I feel like we’re in terrible danger of losing what it means to be a democracy. If elections can be altered in a way that’s undetectable, how does one trust the results of their election? Democracy functions on trust. Without that trust, things descend into chaos and anarchy. Those of us who know how vulnerable the systems are in the elections are terribly afraid right now.”

HBO will premiere “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” on March 26, 2020.

 

Review: ‘After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,’ starring James Alefantis, Jerome Corsi, Kara Swisher, Jack Burkman, Paul Pape, Keith Alexander and Elizabeth Williamson

March 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Infowars founder Alex Jones in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News”

Directed by Andrew Rossi

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of “fake news” in the United States, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including mainstream media journalists, government officials, university professors, right-wing conspiracy theorists and victims of “fake news” stories.

Culture Clash: While the documentary mentions that false news reports can come from anywhere, the movie focuses primarily on “fake news'” spread by right-wing, anti-establishment conspiracy theorists, and the movie shows how this “fake news” affects the targeted people and journalists.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who are comfortable with mainstream media outlets as their main source of news, since these outlets are portrayed in the movie as the best watchdogs for “fake news.”

Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

What is “fake news”? It depends on who you ask. In the documentary “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” what’s defined as “fake news” are false reports and lies that go viral and reach the mainstream. The movie, directed by Andrew Rossi, takes particular aim at right-wing conspiracy theorists as the purveyors of fake news that do the most damage. The documentary takes the position that mainstream media outlets, although flawed, are the still the best ways to combat fake news since they have the resources to fact-check stories. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists firmly believe that mainstream media outlets are the enemies and the real spreaders of fake news.

Tabloids have been publishing fake news for decades, but a more recent type of fake news has arisen through people in the general public using social media to spread their messages. “After Truth” takes an even narrower scope of this new type of fake news, by zooming in on politically motivated “fake news” stories (instead of tabloid staples such as celebrity gossip) that have occurred in the U.S. since 2015.

Why the year 2015? According to  Georgetown University disinformation expert Molly McKew, who’s interviewed in “After Truth,” the summer of 2015 was the start of this current “fake news” era. And most of the experts interviewed think that it’s not a coincidence that this era started soon after Donald Trump began his campaign to become president of the United States. Although the documentary focuses mostly on Americans involved in the war of spreading and debunking fake news, there is some mention of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“After Truth” puts a spotlight on some of the biggest “fake news” scandals in recent years, starting with the hysteria created in the summer of 2015 from Jade Helm 15, an eight-week military exercise in Bastrop County, Texas. The exercise was intended to train military personnel on what do in wartime, including re-enactments. Somehow, false stories began spreading on the Internet that the military was really there to detain people who were known to speak out against then-President Barack Obama, and that the military was really there to enforce “martial law.”

The documentary shows angry citizens at a crowded town hall meeting expressing disbelief and fear when a military official at the meeting assured them that the stories were fake and that no one was going to be arrested for their political beliefs. Paul Pape, a judge in Bastrop County, was one of the people who had to deal with the flood of backlash from misinformed people who were panicking over the military presence. In the documentary, Pape made it clear in saying what he learned from the experience: “Social media is the devil.”

Perhaps the most extreme case that’s spotlighted in the documentary is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that began in 2016 about Comet Ping Pong, a family-oriented pizza parlor/ping-pong facility in Washington, D.C., that’s frequented by many people who work in politics. One of the customers was John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

After several of Podesta’s personal email messages were hacked and leaked on WikiLeaks, the email showed that he was a customer of Comet Ping Pong. Conspiracy theorists (the documentary names Infowars founder Alex Jones as a chief culprit) took the information in the email and twisted it into the Pizzagate theory that Comet Ping Pong was a secret meeting place for a pedophile ring. Podesta, Clinton and billionaire George Soros (a high-profile supporter of Clinton and other liberal Democrats) were all named by the Pizzagate conspiracy theorists as being perverted participants in the ring.

In December 2016, one of the conspiracy theorists (a then-28-year-old armed gunman) was so agitated by this belief that he drove about 350 miles from North Carolina, burst into Comet Ping Pong, and started shooting. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, thanks to employees who quickly evacuated customers from danger. The gunman was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison in 2017. In 2019, another man, also identified as another right-wing conspiracy theorist, tried to set fire to Comet Ping Pong. He was also arrested.

In the documentary, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis (who says the Pizzagate theories are all lies) and some of his employees give emotionally compelling accounts of the terror they felt the day of the shootout and the underlying threat of violence that they still feel, since they know that Comet Ping Pong is still a target for conspiracy theorists’ hatred. Alefantis says that he and Comet Ping Pong associates frequently get death threats and hate mail.

Alefantis, who is openly gay and has a LGBTQ-inclusive policy for customers and employees, also believes that homophobia is probably fueling some of the violent threats against his business. And he also talks about how he thought about closing the business many times, but because of the loyal support of his customers and employees, he’s vowed not to cave in to the bullying and death threats. “It’s a simple recipe,” he says of why Comet Ping Pong is still in business. “Family, community, truth. That’s why we’re here.”

“After Truth” also interviews several right-wing conspiracy theorists to show that they seem to care more about money and fame than reporting facts. They include political operative Jerome Corsi (who’s described in the documentary as the godfather of the current “fake news” era), Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman, Derrick Broze of the Conscience Resistance Network, and Jason Goodman of Crowdsource the Truth. None of them has a background in journalism—and they’re proud of it. As Goodman says in the documentary, “Whatever you think is journalism, I think of as fucked up.”

Burkman freely admits that fake news is “a political weapon,” yet he and others just like him don’t think they bear any responsibility for firing the weapon. “Yeah, there are terrible, negative consequences, but so what?” He adds with a smirk, “Let the people judge, despite the dangers. There is no reality, only perception.”

In the midst of the documentary’s very heavy subject matter comes some comic relief about how fake news can be bungled. Toward the end of the film, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at a debacle that was spearheaded by Burkman and fellow right-wing conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl. In October 2019, the two men claimed that a woman had come forward with a sexual-assault accusation against United States Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller, who at the time was heading the investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Burkman and Wohl promised that they and the woman would be at a press conference to give more details.

Although Burkman and Wohl went through with the press conference, the “mystery woman” never came forward. The press conference and the alleged sexual-assault claim were largely exposed as hoaxes. The documentary shows how, even after being confronted by angry and skeptical reporters, Burkman and Wohl tried to talk their way out of their inconsistent and contradictory statements. And after the press conference, Wohl seemed mostly concerned about whether or not they were “trending” on social media.

That “fake news” fiasco fortunately did not end in violence. But the effects of fake news on threatening people’s safety, as well as how it often crosses the line into hate speech, have led to growing backlash against conspiracy theorists. The documentary mentions that people like Infowars founder Jones (who’s now been banned from all major social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) have no qualms about spreading false/questionable information about others, but are very thin-skinned if they think the same thing is being done to them. There’s footage of Jones, after he lost much of his income due to being banned by these social-media platforms, angrily confronting CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy and accusing CNN of spreading lies about him.

“After Truth” doesn’t let all mainstream media off the hook. Many of the people interviewed in this documentary say that social-media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are corporate enablers of fake news and only try to stop to fake news when there’s widespread public backlash or a government investigation. Smaller social-media platforms such as Reddit and 4Chan are also mentioned as places that spread a lot of fake news and thrive on it. However, Facebook is singled out in the documentary as the worst corporate enabler of fake news.

Recode co-founder Kara Swisher says of Facebook’s relationship with fake news: “They created the platform where it gets spread and then they’re like, ‘Oh, what can we do?’ They hide behind the First Amendment, and they are not the government. They can make choices. They just don’t want to.”

Although many conspiracy theorists and spreaders of fake news who’ve been kicked off mainstream social media say that they are being “censored,” the documentary points out, for people who are ignorant about censorship, that censorship is when the government, not a business, stops or prevents free speech.

Also covered in “After Truth” is the conspiracy theory (which has been widely debunked) that Clinton had something to do with the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee. Police have reported the case as a murder that happened during an attempted robbery. Seth Rich’s older brother Aaron is interviewed in the documentary to reveal how much damage (death threats and other harassment) that conspiracy theorists have caused to his family.

And although the documentary shows extreme right-wingers as being the worst offenders in spreading fake news, the movie gives just one example of a liberal who freely admitted to spreading fake news to get a Democrat elected in the 2017 contentious and controversial race for U.S. Senator in Alabama. The opponents were Roy Moore (a conservative Republican) and Doug Jones (a liberal Democrat). LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman said he created fake accounts on social media, pretending to be right-wing supporters of Moore, so that they would alienate moderate Republicans and spur the moderates to vote for Jones. (Jones won the election.)

Hoffman says he has no regrets about spreading fake news: “I felt empowered to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine.” However, Jones (who’s interviewed in the documentary) expresses disgust that anyone used fake news to help his campaign, and he condemns these tactics. Jones says, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s crazy.”

There are several journalists (all from mainstream media) who are interviewed in the documentary, including CNN’s Darcy; BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman; Washington Post reporter Keith Alexander; and The New York Times reporters Adam Goldman and Elizabeth Williamson. University professors interviewed include Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Yokai Benkler of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, who has this to say about fake news: “It’s very clear what you have is a propagandist effort trying to achieve a result.”

On the one hand, this documentary does an excellent job of showing the real and very human collateral damage that can result in “fake news.” On the other hand, in its zeal in singling out conspiracy theorists as the worst of the worst, “After Truth” could have been a little more balanced in showing that mainstream media outlets can report false stories too.

The executive producers of “After Truth” include CNN’s Brian Stelter, and so that’s perhaps why the documentary turns a blind eye to all the political “fake news” that mainstream media outlets like CNN and The New York Times have ended up having to retract or correct since 2015. However, the difference between these mainstream media outlets and the conspiracy theorists is that when mainstream media outlets have been exposed as reporting false information, they usually admit their mistakes and make the necessary corrections or retractions. Conspiracy theorists almost never correct or retract statements that have been proven to be false, even if they’ve been sued over these false statements.

Whether people are politically liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, the main takeaway from “After Truth” is that in this digital technology age where it’s easier than ever before for people to have false online identities, manipulate photos and videos, and create “fake news,” it’s up to news audiences to be more pro-active in finding out the truth instead of believing stories at face value.

HBO premiered “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” on March 19, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Slay the Dragon’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

Slay the Dragon
Katie Fahey in “Slay the Dragon” (Photo by Sam Russell)

“Slay the Dragon”

Directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

The political documentary “Slay the Dragon” is part history lesson, part wake-up call to U.S. voters. The movie focuses on gerrymandering, the longtime practice of manipulating and rezoning voting districts so that one political party has a disproportionately favorable advantage over others. The word “gerrymander” was inspired by Elbridge Gerry (the Massachusetts governor credited with inventing the practice in the early 19th century) and the word “salamander,” since one of his rezoned districts looked like a salamander.

Even though “Slay the Dragon” mentions that Democrats and Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering, “Slay the Dragon” portrays Republicans as being more ruthless and more corrupt when putting gerrymandering into practice. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, as well as the Republican party’s dominance of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate elections that year, can be considered the flashpoint for much of the grass-roots activism that gets the spotlight in this movie.

“Slay the Dragon” co-director Barak Goodman says that this documentary was largely inspired by David Daley’s 2016 nonfiction book “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” which details how gerrymandering was taken to new levels of corruption by Republicans, in response to the 2008 U.S. presidential election of Barack Obama and Democrats who dominated Congress during Obama’s first term. Daley, who is interviewed in the film, is also a consultant for the documentary. Also interviewed in the film are Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman and Republican State Leadership Committee chief Chris Jankowski, a political strategist who is often credited with the Republicans’ dominance of the 2016 elections.

But the film’s real star is Katie Fahey, founder of the Michigan-based grassroots organization Voters Not Politicians. Fahey, an upbeat activist in her 20s, had no political experience when she started Voters Not Politicians. Against the odds and predictions of naysayers, Voters Not Politicians managed to get the state of Michigan to create an independent commission to oversee voter redistricting. Voters Not Politicians is supposed to be a non-partisan group, but it’s clear that most of the group members are left-leaning voters who are more alarmed by Republicans taking over their districts than Democrats.

“Slay the Dragon” also examines the racism behind gerrymandering, which usually targets blacks and Latinos as groups to manipulate when reshaping voting districts. The 2014 Supreme Court case McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated limits on campaign donations for federal elections, is considered one of the main reasons why gerrymandering has placed even more political control in the hands of the wealthy. “Slay the Dragon” gives hope to those who believe that voters who aren’t wealthy have a real chance of making a difference if they band together to fight corruption.

UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “Slay the Dragon” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.