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Film

America's Most Hated Family

Director: Louis Theroux
Cast: Louis Theroux, Shirley Phelps, Steve Drain, Jael Phelps, Noah Phelps

(BBC; National Geographic Channel: 13 Jan 2012; UK theatrical: 3 Apr 2011 (General release); 2011)

You Would Entrap Us In Our Words

“Whose brainwave was it that Obama is the anti-Christ?” In America’s Most Hated Family, British filmmaker Louis Theroux has come back to visit with the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, specifically, with Fred Phelps’ daughter Shirley. She’s pleased to see Theroux, who made a BBC documentary about her family back in 2006, The Most Hated Family in America. “That is such a good question: you’re gonna love this. It was a whole bunch of us looking, and like, I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s got to be the anti-Christ. He fits all the descriptors.’ So then, I was talking to Marge and there was no question, that a lot of us were thinking it.”


As Shirley speaks, the camera cuts to Theroux’s plainly disbelieving expression, and in the background, a young boy watches, his face barely formed, blank. The camera frames these differences among these reactions—fervent, disconcerted, impassive—so as to emphasize all. None of these subjects is irrelevant, and, as much as they might not be hearing or understanding one another, they are all pieces of a broader picture, of ideological diversity, maybe, but certainly of political fragmentation. 


Such encounters make up the bulk of America’s Most Hated Family (Louis Theroux: The Most Hated Family in America in Crisis in the UK, premiering tonight on National Geographic Channel). As Theroux explains it, he’s seen signs that this ‘fire and brimstone Christian group,” perhaps most famous for picketing US soldiers’ funerals with signs that read, “God Hate Fags” and “Jews Killed Jesus,” is “unraveling.”


His investigation leads him to the home of Steve Drain, who converted to the church while making a documentary about it during the 1990s. Here Steve jokes about a new placard he’s made, featuring Theroux’s face framed by flames (“Louis in Hell”), then proceeds to defend a decision he and his wife Luci made to disown their adolescent daughter Lauren because she didn’t believe as they do (“Steve says they handed “her over to Satan for desecration of the flesh”). When Theroux suggests this is a sad turn of events, Steve calls him a “jack-weasel” for imposing his humanistic judgment on their adherence to “scriptural processes.” Luci looks offended too: “Why are you back here, Louis?”


Even as they reject their guest, the Drains maintain a friendly affect, as if they are genuinely surprised at Theroux’s response, but don’t quite process it either. Each scene in the documentary offers another instance of this juxtaposition: when Theroux is invited to watch a group of “younger Phelps women” (They call themselves the Saucy Seven”) gyrate music-video style as they sing about eternal damnation, Phelps observes “two urges at work, one to spread the message in the provocative Phelps style, another simply to provide a hobby and an outlet for the younger members.” When he speaks with one of the dancers, Jael Phelps. “I thought I’d seen a conflict in her,” he says of a previous interview, but “Four years on, she was still in the church.” Moreover, she is adamant about how the rules work: she “rejoices in calamities” because they’re God’s judgments. People die because they deserve it, she asserts, whether by hurricane, in war, or car accident. Punishment is the way the world works and so, the Phelps family members reason, they are right to punish one another—say, Lauren—as they see God punishing others.


As Theroux makes his way from one family member to another, he narrates what he’s doing and how he sees it, inviting you to share in his upset, and also, in the many questions this spectacle of intolerance raises for him. As he speaks with Noah Phelps, Shirley’s 11-year-old son, Theroux stands with a homemade chart on chameleons behind him in the boy’s bedroom, wondering how he can know we’re near the end of times. The single camera pitches to Noah, who looks first at Theroux and then the camera and back, reciting the research he and his siblings have conducted to show that “Were at the part with the Beast.” Theroux bites, “And who is the Beast?” Noah swallows and smiles, “The Beast? Well, Anti-Christ Obama possibly!?” He turns serious, lisping just a little. “He’s getting all sorts of popularity. He’s fitting all the roles it talks about perfectly, so we have all reason to believe he’s the beast.”


Theroux heads down the hall to Noah’s sister, 18-year-old Grace. Her sisters hover outside Graces’ pale-green-walled bedroom, though they have all agreed to the interviewed. Grace knows, says one, “She knows you, and she recognizes that you would, if you could, entrap us in our words.” When Grace admits he makes her nervous, Theroux lays his cards on the table, so he doesn’t seem “snakelike and insidious,” as the Phelps seem to think. “I don’t believe what you’re doing is right, and I feel it’s deeply wrong and offensive. And I don’t believe the Bible is the word of God.”


But as Theroux “tries to understand on a human level,” how the Phelps have come to their position, their fears and their rages. He appreciates that the girls—who are allowed to interact with outsiders who happen to be journalists, whom they might meet at protests—are insulated. He also tries to listen to their explanations and suspicions, their versions of their flirtations and efforts to communicate with the outside world, for instance, a set of nice young reporters from Holland, who might be “receptive” to their ideas. “I see someone who’s having their cake and eating it,” offers Theroux, as the girls sway and smile. “Someone who’s toeing the line verbally, about this is God’s judgment, this is what I believe, but all the time, is fulfilling themselves emotionally, with something that’s exactly like any other earthly friendship.”


Theroux and the Phelps sisters continue to converse, not agreeing, but perhaps, exchanging ideas, maybe even listening long enough to respond to one another. In other scenes, so familiar from news footage, Phelps family protestors argue with passers-by or counter-protestors, furious, loud, gesturing and stomping away. It’s not so much that America’s Most Hated Family provides answers or even coherent questions. But it does suggest that words, spoken and heard rather than shouted or painted on signs intended to hurt people, might make a difference.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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