American Gadfly


Sharing a laugh before hitting the campaign laptop.

(2022) Documentary (Gravitas) Mike Gravel, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery, Henry Magowan, Whitney Stewart Gravel, Dave Weigel, Jamie Keiles, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, Jon Suhr, Anne Williams, Bettina Weil, Keane Bhatt, Alex Chang, Benjamin Church, Niko House, Katherine Williams. Directed by Skye Wallin

 

The political landscape has changed, as it always, inevitably, does. As technologies change, as fresh blood infuses the electorate, the way in which political discourse is conducted has shifted. We are entering the age, for better or for worse, of the political meme.

As the 2020 presidential election began to take shape, a group of politically-minded high school seniors in upscale Westchester County, New York, felt frustrated by the way the Democratic primaries were shaping out. Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery (a junior) and Henry Magowan felt that the issues important to them and to other young liberals, were not being addressed by the largely centrist group of candidates. Even Bernie Sanders didn’t feel far enough to the left for them. They thought they needed a candidate who would, at least, bring their issues to the conversation.

They found one in Mike Gravel (pronounced Gra-velle, with an emphasis on the second syllable. A former Senator from Alaska, Gravel was known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record to point out the criminal activities being perpetrated by military forces in Vietnam. He was a bit of a maverick, often breaking with party lines, who believed in direct Democracy – that issues should be decided by a popular vote by the electorate, rather than by elected officials. He was also a pacifist, vehemently antiwar.

The trouble was that Gravel was long since retired from politics, living in Monterey, California, and just shy of 90. That didn’t stop the idealistic teens from reaching out to Gravel and asking him to run one last time for President, as he had in 2008 where he had at least made it to the debate stage.

The boys had no illusions of winning the primary. All they wanted to accomplish was to get Gravel on the debate stage this time out, so that their issues might be expressed. Gravel was intrigued by the idea, although he felt that the physical demands of the campaign would be too much for him. However, he agreed to file and allow the students to use his social media accounts to raise the issues and have the conversation that the boys felt was important for the party’s future.

The documentary follows the process as the boys run a uniquely 21st century campaign through Twitter and Facebook. They took on the other candidates for the Democratic primary, often snarky in tone, but the campaign was unusual enough to get some notice from the late night talk shows…well, at least, one of them, anyway.

Although the title of the movie seems to indicate that it’s about Gravel, the former Senator is actually a supporting player. He is generally contacted by phone and rarely consulted about the content of the campaign. The movie is really about the four young men, who know absolutely nothing about running a campaign and yet managing to achieve the goal of getting enough donations to qualify for the second Democratic primary debate – unfortunately, Gravel still didn’t make the stage since more than 20 candidates qualified and the organizers would only permit a maximum of 20 candidates onstage.

The focus on the boys has some interest; as the campaign goes on, some friction rises between the four as they begn to disagree on how the campaign is to be run. Still, this may well be a preview of how campaigns are going to be run in the near-future, and in many ways it’s chilling. When you reduce the conversation to television sound bites, ideas often get essentially lost; reduce it further to accomodate Twitter and the ideas disappear completely. The memes are often snarky and sometimes even vicious; even though the boys decry the bullying tactics of Trump, they often imitate them. Watching this, I thought about the divide between conservatives and liberals in this country; would we further fracture as the far right and far left take on the centrists in their own parties? Can we as a nation ever come back from such a divide?

One admires the chutzpah of the four young men running a campaign on a shoestring. Some will grumble that there isn’t a great deal of inclusiveness in their campaign – no women and only two people of color (both Asians) are involved with their campaign in any meaningful way, but considering that this is essentially four guys from the same school who decided to tilt at a particular windmill that others weren’t likely to follow along with, it’s understandable that they didn’t attract a whole lot of interest from others who might have been (and were) more interested in the campaigns of Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang.

The movie is a bit self-aggrandizing – the boys tend to make claims about the effects of their campaign on the national conversation that I don’t think are warranted – but at the end of the day, four young men of a generation that are pretty much left out of the political equation saw a need to get themselves representation and went for it. There’s nothing that isn’t admirable about that.

REASONS TO SEE: There is something comforting about watching young people trying to change the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is somewhat misleading towards the content.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity as well as some adult these.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravel passed away at age 91 on June 26, 2021 of multiple myelomas. He is the oldest candidate for President in the history of the Democratic party.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Brand is Crisis
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Don’t Look Up

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Nationtime


Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, addresses the convention.

(1972) Documentary (Kino-LorberSidney Poitier (narrator), Dick Gregory, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Richard Hatcher, Amiri Baraka, Bobby Seale, Charles C. Diggs, Harry Belafonte, Phil Cohran, Ben Branch, Walter Fauntroy, Byron Lewis, Queen Mother Moore, Richard Roundtree, Owusu Sadukai, Wali Siddiq, Al Freeman Jr.. Directed by William Greaves

 

1972 was a part of some momentous times. The Watergate scandal was just getting underway while antiwar protests were in full bloom. The National Organization of Women was pushing the ERA, while Black Power was beginning to manifest itself in political terms.

To that end, they put together a convention that met in Gary, Indiana – home of the Jackson 5 (whose family was in attendance at the convention). Many leaders in politics and entertainment met to discuss things that mattered to the African-American community. The convention was captured on film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker William Greaves. On the mind of those speaking was disenfranchisement of the African-American community (despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act five years earlier, still fully half of eligible African-Americans had not yet registered to vote), police brutality, and an ongoing war. Does any of that sound familiar today?

Two of the political leaders of the African-American community had been assassinated – Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, but both of their widows spoke at the convention. Comedian Dick Gregory showed his insightful political humor and Isaac Hayes performed as only he could. Poetry by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes was read by Harry Belafonte, but the star of the show in many ways was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose fiery speech was meant to galvanize his audience – and it did. It was almost like a sermon, with call and response – “What time is it?” “It’s nationtime!” – and a powerful indictment of the system that was by design denying African-Americans equal opportunities – again, a depressingly familiar situation. Jackson intoned that both parties had failed the African-American community and he advocated founding a new political party of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and white allies to take a run at the established parties and deliver to the people the opportunities they deserve. One can’t help but wonder if the idea isn’t just as valid now as it was then.

There has been some improvement over the years – for example, in 1972 there were only 13 Black members of Congress when, by population, there should have been 52. Today, there are 56 which is closer to the percentage of population that African-Americans make up. There has also been an African-American president, something not even considered by the Gary convention, at least not on camera. And speaking of on-camera, I would have liked to have seen more of the women of the community get camera time but it is the men who dominate. It was a different time, and certainly were a similar convention to take place now, I imagine whoever was chosen to document it would give African-American women more exposure.

The film is very much set in its era, with the buzzwords of the time and the radical politics of the time both very much in evidence. It might be a little quaint to see the huge afros and cringe-worthy fashion of the era in evidence, but the film also evokes the rage that was simmering in the community – the riots in Watts and Detroit were fresh in everyone’s mind. Sadly, that rage continues today as African-Americans still must protest unfair treatment by the police, a general lack of opportunity available in African-American communities compared to white communities, and as David Austin so eloquently put it, Fear of a Black Nation. The movie dramatically shows that while there has been some change for the better, there is still a very long way to go. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to remind us of that in these volatile times.

REASONS TO SEE: An important, powerful historical document. Jesse Jackson’s speech is a real fire breather.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Greaves was a prolific documentarian with over 100 films to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trial of the Chicago 7
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Resusterhood