‘Broken Heart Land’ Heartbreakingly Tells of the Harm Done by Intolerance

Norman, Oklahoma serves as a haven for both tolerance and intolerance. This contradiction comes to trouble the parents of Zack Harrington, who killed himself in 2010.

“Growing up right in the middle of Oklahoma, things were just done in a conservative manner,” says David Spaulding. “You go to church, you play ball, you live a wholesome life.” As he speaks, you see a series of images, an American flag against a bright blue sky, a farmer at work, a Christian Center billboard, a high school football game, the sign for a drive-in restaurant, established in 1957.” Cut back to Spaulding, a City Council member in Norman, as he adds, “There’s an attack on that lifestyle from those who want to push their agenda, and I’m not going tolerate it.”

Appearing in the documentary Broken Heart Land, Spaulding is describing this attack, and specifically this “agenda,” in response to the City Council’s decision to support a proposal for an LGBTQ History Month. It’s not that he condemns anyone. He means to help. As he appears in a scene on his farm, pushing a swing for a pair of little girls dressed in pink, his voiceover explains, “Homosexuality is an abomination. You need to reach out to those people, or we need to reach out to them, and share with them the Gospel and show them that what they’re doing is not conducive to making heaven.”

Spaulding’s reasoning here is of the circular sort that makes it difficult to see beyond it. It’s the sort of reasoning that simultaneously shapes and divides communities like Norman’s. A college town that’s probably more “progressive” than many towns in Oklahoma, as reporter Andrew Kittle puts it, Norman serves as a haven for both tolerance and intolerance. This contradiction comes to trouble Nancy and Van Harrington, parents of a gay 19-year-old who killed himself in 2010.

The Harringtons’ struggles are at the center of Broken Heart Land, currently streaming at the World Channel. Soon after Zack’s death, the story begins to circulate that, just days before, he attended the City Council meeting where community members voiced their opposition to the proposed LGBTQ History Month. If his reasoning can never be known, his parents (who met while both were in the Air Force), as well as his older sister Nikki and younger brother Austin, begin to rethink their own perspectives and behaviors.

The film includes frankly chilling footage from the City Council meeting (“The gays say they want equality, but demand special attention. That’s not equal, it’s special”; “You can’t reproduce homosexuality, you actually have to recruit for homosexuality”; “Unfortunately, the love that dare not say its name has become the love that never shuts up”). It also features footage of a local pastor, Chad Williams, who declares at the Council meeting that 78 percent of homosexuals die from sexually transmitted diseases.

The film’s interviews with both Williams and Spaulding don’t so much explain the abject falsity of this number, but they do suggest their confidence in their beliefs. This confidence is the focus of Broken Heart Land‘s inquiry. In part, this inquiry is structured by the Harringtons’ self-examinations, as they ask each other and themselves how they missed the difficulty of Zack’s experience. As much as Spaulding and Williams cannot begin to contemplate the damage caused by their intolerance and their fear, the Harringtons make their questions visible. The film thus uses its doubled structure, its interviews with Williams and Spaulding as well as with the Harringtons, to demonstrate the multiple meanings of its title, the several ways hearts and the heart land might be “broken.”

That Williams and Spaulding feel able to express themselves so plainly in the film is at once alarming and telling: they live in a world where their views are confirmed repeatedly. Indeed, when the proposal passes in 2010 (“I think what we heard tonight really underscores the need for this proclamation,” says the mayor), Williams is so certain of his rightness that he decides to run for the Council himself. (He defends his staggeringly inaccurate his number — 78 percent — by claiming he cited an “old” number from the CDC, a number that appears never to have existed.)

His decision in turn inspires the Harringtons to speak publicly, even while they continue to grapple with their loss and also, their discovery, after Zack’s death, that he was HIV positive. While they says at first that they’ve been unable to tell other family members, all of the Harringtons are soon enlisting the film itself as a way to speak publicly. This collaboration between film and family expands the effects that both might have. With the film crew in attendance, Nancy reveals to some neighbors her son’s HIV status and discovers a community she didn’t know existed, and quite the opposite of the conservative, fearful citizens who spoke up at the City Council meeting, “right in the middle of Oklahoma.”

Nancy and her family go on to rethink their assumptions, wondering how their previously unconsidered, stoic-seeming silences might have made it hard for Zack to tell his “secret.” The film represents their rethinking with a remarkable respect. Carefully composed images show each alone, Nikki smoking cigarettes, Van gazing out a window, Nancy in her kitchen, remembering how the kids used to help her make salads. Internally framed by doorways and furniture, their faces are pensive, looking beyond silences and structures.

This technique — simultaneously evocative and contemplative — illustrates tensions and gradual resolutions within the family, as Nancy and Nikki talk about their Midwestern traditions (“It’s good to have two parents who are rocks,” says Nikki) or as Van ponders the conservative tenets he never questioned before (while Fox News appears on the TV in the background). As Nikki puts it, everyone in the family now has to come out.

Nancy’s steps in this process may be the most visible, as she helps to found Mothers of Many (MOM), who take as one of their first causes the support of the candidate running against Williams, Jackie Farley. As the film follows the two campaigns in montages, you’re aware of both their differences and similarities, the door-to-door canvassing, the expectations and resentments, the confidence lost and gained. Nancy’s emergence as a public speaker is as heartening and difficult as you might imagine.

When Williams’ campaign releases an especially (but not surprisingly) underhanded attack on Farley, Spaulding describes it as business as usual: “It’s all a game right now and both players and their supporters are jockeying and maneuvering. It’s the American way.” Banal and dismaying as this assessment may be, it makes clear the other way that Nancy Harrington represents in every moment you see her.

RATING 8 / 10