30 Days

[2 August 2006]

By Sean O'Neal

Debates

Morgan Spurlock has carved out a specific niche by turning his documentaries into social experiments. He also makes arguments (most famously Super Size Me‘s assertion that fast food is bad for you), using not only dry facts or expert opinions, but his own body and experience. This empirical knowledge gained was much more effective in convincing viewers of his point than any amount of filibustering.

He took that conceit to other topics with the first season of 30 Days, Spurlock’s documentary series for FX, tackling homophobia and binge drinking. Watching Spurlock and his perpetually put-upon fiancée (now wife) Alex Jamieson struggle to pay bills, commute, and (occasionally) eat on minimum wage for an hour taught us more about such difficulties than any hour’s worth of statistics or debate could have.

When Jamieson forbade Spurlock from using himself as the guinea pig in every episode, his show took on more dramatic heft. Instead of watching a liberal-minded filmmaker “learn” things he probably already knew, 30 Days forced people with deeply ingrained beliefs—such as an ultra-patriotic Christian who thought all Muslims were terrorists—to live with what they thought they hated for a month.

30 Days’ second season kicked off by following a Minuteman who’s sent to live with a family of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles. Coming in the wake of prolonged, fiery debate on this issue at all levels of government, as well as recent massive protests, the episode may be Spurlock’s most topically charged work yet. But whereas the tensions over immigration are often cast in racial and even racist terms, this episode avoided such reduction in its casting. Before their “guest” arrives, the family’s mother worried aloud that the producers would send a “blue-eyed, blond haired gringo.” Her teenage daughter Armida countered that it would be worse if he was Hispanic, as it would be harder to take that sort of persecution from one of their own.

As it turns out, Armida was right. The Minuteman was a Cuban who immigrated legally as a child. Frank George was the very picture of no-compromises American authority, from his neatly trimmed mustache to the clean and pressed “USA” t-shirts he favors. We saw him patrolling the California border with an almost gleeful singularity of purpose, and in his spare time attending immigrant protests, getting into heated debates via megaphone with those who call him a racist, or worse. Over breakfast, he and his wife traded stories of how “sick” illegal immigrants have made them on these occasions, particularly when protestors “cover the American flag with a Mexican one.” To Frank, this is a prelude to the “revolution” he predicts will make “America” a thing of the past.

Frank’s host family, by contrast, was the picture of humility. They didn’t want a revolution, and they certainly didn’t want America to turn into the Mexico they fled. Family patriarch Rigoberto Gonzalez (not his real name) endured the pain of leaving his family behind to work as a day laborer for pennies. It was a difficult choice, he said, as Mexico’s government slid ever deeper into corruption. The cameras in their home revealed their situation is still a struggle, with two adults and five kids living in a one-bedroom apartment. Rigoberto earns tax-free money doing odd jobs that “no one else wants to do”; his wife Patty, as she demonstrated in one of the most affecting segments, collects bottles and cans to earn enough to buy presents for her children. Their daughter Armida is a bright and vivacious American teenager, yet because of her illegal status, she worried she won’t be able to go to the college she dreams about.

None of this meant much to Frank. He acknowledged that his immediate reaction to seeing their home was to “call and have them picked up” by authorities. Despite their hospitality, and Armida’s attempt to bridge the gap by pointing out that he, too, is an immigrant, Frank remained steadfast in his opinion that the Gonzalez family does not belong here. Of course, this is where Spurlock’s assertion in the show’s intro that “a lot can happen in 30 days” comes into play. Both Frank and the Gonzalez family overcame their initial prejudices and become a makeshift unit. Frank worked alongside Rigoberto as he scrounged electrical and landscaping jobs that require plenty of physical labor and offer little reward. He listened with watering eyes as Patty tearfully related how hard it is to keep her family happy in the face of so many obstacles. Most importantly, he befriended Armida, eventually conceding that she and her parents are only looking for better lives, not a hostile takeover.

Frank’s change did have limits. When not in the family’s house, he remained the hostile and inflammatory Minuteman we saw in earlier footage. Engaging Armida’s teacher in a debate, he began slamming his fist on the table and yelling about the “goddamn government” that granted amnesty to immigrants as the Gonzalez family looked on, wide-eyed. Later, he attended a protest rally with Armida and a friend at their urging, then refused even to light a candle with them. When the crowd began chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, he shook his head in disgust, saying, “They don’t mean that. If this isn’t the beginning of a revolution, I don’t know what is.”

Frank’s most difficult situation occurred when he agreed to visit the Gonzalezes’ family in Mexico, since they cannot travel back and forth. Here he saw what they risked everything to escape, a tiny, roofless hovel that Rigoberto and Patty once called a home. He was openly astonished that anyone could live that way, even more so that Rigoberto’s parents lived with a dirt floors and rampant cockroaches. Frank fell silent for the first time. Back in Los Angeles, Rigoberto told Frank he wanted to rescue his brother from that life, to bring him over. Though Frank didn’t reverse his opinions—in the episode’s epilogue, we learned he is still a Minuteman—he found himself doing the unthinkable, agreeing with a man whom he once considered an enemy.

It’s not an earth-shattering revelation that illegal immigrants are people too. But 30 Days turned a debate too often reliant on PR spin or faceless statistics into affecting drama. As the show refuses to vilify opposing viewpoints or preach to the choir, future episodes promise to tackle atheism, outsourcing, abortion, and prison (Spurlock will conduct this experiment himself). Unlike Michael Moore (whose similar work is tainted with political slant), Morgan Spurlock seems to have perfected the “show, don’t tell” approach.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/30-days/