Asa Carter made himself up. At least that’s what people around him think. Or, again, it’s what people tell the makers of The Reconstruction of Asa Carter. He led a series of public lives, under several names. And as interviewees here try to piece together the puzzle that was Asa Carter, they run up against a dilemma again and again: he was a consummate self-performer.
Asa Carter’s very elusiveness makes him either a perverse or ideal subject for documentary. To its credit, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter — which screens 1 November at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with director Marco Ricci, producer Douglas Newman, and executive producer Laura Browder — presents him as perversely ideal. That is, his very elusiveness is the focus of the film’s investigation. It doesn’t pretend to sort out or come to conclusions about his deceptions and manipulations, or to privilege one interviewee’s assessment over another. Even as they’re presented as people who “knew” him — as “Asa’s friend,” or his literary agent — few of them offer definitive versions of Carter. Instead, even as they describe what they “know,” the film counters with other descriptions. These take multiple forms, sometimes in reenactments, sometimes in sensational newspaper headlines, sometimes in archival TV news footage or radio interviews with Carter, and none of them lets you believe that you “know” Asa Carter.
Among the sticking points in Asa Earl Carter’s story are his seemingly abjectly opposed performances as a diehard segregationist who wrote speeches for Alabama Governor George Wallace (Carter is infamously responsible for the “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” pronouncement) and as the author of the faux memoir, The Education of Little Tree, which he wrote under the name Forrest Carter, a self-declared Native American Cherokee. He also wrote (and was well paid for) The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, basis of the Clint Eastwood movie. As different as these public performances appear to be, they also all speak to some similar themes and, perhaps, desires.
The film lets interview subjects make their own guesses as to such desires — whether he craved celebrity or political power. While narrator Guy Clark suggests that Carter’s initial “journey from the hardscrabble hills of Alabama to the top of the American publishing industry is American to the core,” his detours along this journey are “American” in a less mythic way. These seem plainly to be about money.
Those who knew him as a ” professional white supremacist,” as Howell Raines puts it, speak as the film shows images of Carter –then called Ace — looking stereotypical, a familiar angry white man of the South, circa 1950s and ’60s: white shirt, fist in the air, angry and sweaty face. He appears in on TV interview in s magazine shop, Ebony magazines on the shelf behind him as he tells a reporter, “Our immediate concern is the protection of our wives or daughters and mothers.”
“In the South, we have 98% Anglo Saxon race,” he asserts during an especially vividly delivered speech, “We stood up and told the nigra, you must operate, you must conduct yourself from a separate state.” The rhetoric is alarming, rousing, and, according to Raines, calculated. “To Ace Carter and some others at the time,” he explains, “racism was s product, what automobiles were to car dealers.” Racism stoked the fears of white Southerners ready to resist the integration of schools (ordered by the Supreme Court, then the enemy) and so helped politicians win elections. As he writes for Wallace, te film uses a reenactment, Carter pounding away at a typewriter in a motel room, chain-smoking and drinking whiskey, as DIane McWhorter guesses what he might have been doing: “He would be just kind of red and kind of work himself up into this almost physiological frenzy.” Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t.
Other stories include his work as a Klan organizer, though he learned soon enough that this was a liability, and so abandoned this part of his past. All these bits of his past begin to bother Wallace, who adapts to his political landscape: Tom Turnipseed, once on Wallace’s staff, says that for some time after the (success of the) “segregation forever” speech, Carter would call the next Wallace campaign with “suggestions.” But, “I finally didn’t take his calls anymore, because I was told not to by Governor Wallace and his assistants we needed to keep him at arm’s length.” The product had become less marketable and Wallace was moving on.
Carter did as well, giving up the racist extremist performance, and finding others that are even more lucrative, including “author.” He sells Josey Wales to Eastwood and, according to historian Jeff Roche, undergoes a “physical transformation”: he starts wearing cowboy kind of clothes,” including jeans, a hat with a feather, and, says another observer, “a vest jacket kind of thing.” Under the pieces of description, different speakers’ phrases together creating a single image, the film shows a sketch that includes each piece, changed in the end into a photo of Carter as cowboy.
Carter’s literary agent, Rhoda Weyr, assesses that Carter was “very, very smart,” to write Little Tree when he did, at a time “when Indians were very hot in America: forgive me for saying that, but it’s the only way I can describe the atmosphere in the ’70s.” The film cuts to a well known and predictable demonstration of same, a TV news report on Apache Indian Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1972 Academy Awards, and another on the siege at Wounded Knee. Weyr says of Carter, “He knew what he was doing every single minute. He was handling me, he was handling the publishing world, he was handling Clint Eastwood, he was handling our LA office. We weren’t handling him.”
This handling is effective for acquaintance Chuck Weeth, who expresses surprise when he sees footage of the racist Ace Carter. He says of Forrest Carter, “He was trying to raise the American Indian image to its highest ideal. And I think that’s what made The Education of Little Tree so touching and so warm.” Historian Dan T. Carter suggests, “He uses Native Americans as a kind of stand-in for white Americans,” and so he is still telling the same story. Like white Southerners then or maybe Tea Partiers now, “Native Americans have been victimized by the federal government their culture.” It’s a narrative that works in multiple contexts, whether dressed up in segregationist anxiety or complaints against the federal government in the name of Native Americans.
To illustrate how the performances echo, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter uses a striking image, a TV set with Carter as and in footage, while re-enactors appear in the background, in a barbershop, in a family living room. The framing smartly blurs the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not, what’s past and what’s present, what’s Ace Carter and what’s Forrest Carter. Though he rejected the word “reconstructed,” creating characters who were decidedly “unreconstructed,” he repeatedly reconstructed himself.