[16 February 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I think he hates all people. I think he wants to destroy this earth.
—McCain supporter, on Barack Obama
I never say I make documentaries. I say I make television.
—Alexandra Pelosi, 25 January 2009
In “real America,” the presidential campaign of 2008 constituted a battle of good and evil. The differences between the candidates were stark, if not always coherent, according to interviewees in Right America: Feeling Wronged: Some Voices from the Campaign Trail. A series of snapshots from some 28 states visited by Alexandra Pelosi, riding along with McCain’s Straight Talk Express, the film shows how rhetoric and the fervor became increasingly vehement, and how, despite the many displays of commitment and numbers at rallies, the proudly self-named “right” came to feel left out of the election process.
Most often, the blame for this feeling is directed at “the media,” or more emphatically, the “liberal media.” This is apparently every outfit but Fox News, whose Sean Hannity is greeted enthusiastically at a Palin rally (when he points out for the crowd that Pelosi is Nancy’s daughter, she blurts, “You’re going to get me lynched!”). The rally attendees tend to hate the media, in part because, as McCain declares, they have written him off, and not, one insists to Pelosi, because Fox News tells him what he already believes. Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin and Chris Matthews’ tingling leg and, these supporters say, illustrate the point. “We’re looking at that for news,” says one young man. “This guy’s supposed to be, like, an expert. He’s the news guy.”
Such disappointment in institutions that don’t deliver to needs and expectations is common among the film’s subjects. “We feel like it’s a culture war between the East and the West Coasts, and the flyover country,” a man says. “They think of as a bunch of hicks, we’re a bunch of idiots. They don’t want to even hear our side or understand us.” This side has a range of concerns, from pro-life and anti-gay marriage to pro-redneck and anti-East Coast elites (Hank Williams, Jr. sings at a rally, “The left wing liberal media has always been a close-knit family”). Asked to define the term “redneck,” one NASCAR fan as “working America,” the folks who were “sunburned on the back of the neck while they were working in the fields out on the roads.” Pelosi follows up on the presumption of race in this definition,without hammering the point. She asks the NASCAR fans whether they’re ready for a black president. “Personally, myself,” says one, “I’m not ready for it because I’m from the old school.”
He’s uncomfortable with political correctness, he says. “You can’t fly the confederate flag no more, you can’t say nothing no more.” (This even as the camera shows such flags at this North Carolina racetrack and on fans’ caps.) The man is moved to tears as he reflects on what’s happened. “It used to be, one time, we’re top dog. Now we’re nothing. All the immigrants coming here, they got all the rights, we got nothing.”
Other versions of such disaffection and anxiety about “foreigners” include doubts about Obama’s loyalties (a young man sells Obama-Osama buttons, explaining that even if he doesn’t believe the two are linked, he is himself a good “capitalist,” only “giving people what they want”) and fears about invasion. A woman wearing a spangly Uncle Sam’s hat describes McCain as a “strong man” who will “protect our country about the terrorist thing. That’s another thing that’s very scary. What if you wake up, 9/11, and you don’t have a country? You’re bombed? You don’t know that that can’t happen. It already happened.”
This and other similar interviews raise questions about they might work differently in another film, one that would be recognizable to its participants as pro-McCain, for instance. That’s not to say Right America is unfair or unbalanced, per se, or even that it is unself-aware. When Pelosi speaks to someone who says he believes Obama is the antichrist, she observes from off-camera that viewers are going to think she selected the craziest man she could see. “But you look like a normal guy,” she asserts, not an especially convincing self-defense, but at least somewhat pre-emptive.
While the documentary notes the rising anger at some rallies (and includes those most-YouTubed moments, when the woman told McCain Obama was “an Arab” and when the man exhorted him to speak up for those who are “really mad”), it also includes a brief clip of a young man who worries about the sight of two people fighting, down in the dirt, over an anti-McCain sign. “When you come to these gatherings, it brings out the worst in people,” he sighs. “There are good normal people who show up to these rallies, like me. Others give their candidate a bad name.”
It’s not only the rallies that have this effect. In Oxford, Mississippi, Pelosi asks a series of customers at a gas station how they feel about Obama. Frankly, the question seems to bait them, as she’s warned by one fellow that the area is still full of “prejudiced people.” One man walks away from her camera as he asserts straight up, “I ain’t voting for no nigger.” Pelosi turns the camera on two black men who’ve watched the exchange. One is irate: “She come all the way from New York to interview a white boy that use the word ‘nigger,’” he says. “And they gonna put it in HBO and use it to paint Mississippi bad. Like they don’t say ‘nigger’ in New York, like they don’t say ‘cracker’ or ‘honky’ out in L.A. You should be ashamed of yourself, Miss Liberal.” His point is well taken. The film keeps focused on the “real America” defined by Palin, the one apart from cities and coasts, the one where men wear overalls and churches advertise their faith in her as the righteous, right candidate.
Displaying the passions of McCain and Palin supporters, Right America is not revelatory or even very surprising. Neither does it pretend to be unbiased. It is, instead, a personal sort of representation, as she asks mostly useful and not always decorous questions, doesn’t confront her subjects but instead engages with them, charming them with the promise of a chance to express themselves. In these encounters, the camera does most of the work, whether in interview close-ups or instructive B-roll shots, and Right America, like her other work (Journeys With George, Friends of God) constructs a sort of intimacy with the “other side” while also maintaining its own recognizable political sensibility, a view of what’s at stake in these ongoing debates and a faith in communication that remains undaunted.