With the success of Our Nixon (Lane, 2013) and Apollo 11 (Miller, 2019)—nonfiction films primarily constructed from never-before-seen archival footage—documentary filmmakers have quickly taken on a curatorial role much like the folks running reissue record labels. The impulse now is to dig for buried cinematic treasures and resurrect them for mass consumption.
That’s the catalyst behind Questlove’s upcoming directorial debut Summer of Soul, a documentary built from video recordings of a rarely-discussed series of free concerts in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park. Similar mining of the past serves as the core of Nadia Szold’s latest film, Larry Flynt for President.
Much of the footage in this new documentary was filmed in 1983 during Larry Flynt’s knowingly hopeless attempt to unseat then-president Ronald Reagan. At the time, the Hustler magazine publisher was coming out of a fog. Five years earlier, Flynt was shot in an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down and sent him into a spiral of drug use and paranoia.
But after making national headlines for successfully defending his magazine’s First Amendment rights in the Supreme Court in 1981 and getting free of his addictions, Flynt was on a mission to protect his fellow Americans from the Moral Majority and a conservative White House. As he told reporters in late 1983 when he officially launched his Presidential campaign, “I want to keep Big Brother out of your bedroom. [If] the government can control the single strongest drive you have, they can control anything, and that’s the road to fascism.”
The campaign itself was both deadly serious and a complete publicity stunt. Flynt brought on Native American activist Russell Means to be his running mate, while also having his aides passing out free copies of his magazine and sporting a t-shirt that read, “Jesus Was an Anarchist”.
Szold gamely strikes a similar balance of thoughtful and absurd with her documentary. The film is fast-paced and generally upbeat, making stops to highlight Flynt’s silly attempt to rattle the government with purported sex tapes featuring Reagan and his arrival at a Federal District Court wearing a diaper made from an American flag.
At the same time, there was a genuine concern about the legal battle Flynt was in with the Reverend Jerry Falwell over a satirical ad that ran in Hustler. While all this was going on, Flynt’s wife was visibly struggling with her own drug addiction. It’s the same period that director Milos Forman and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski dramatized in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. But President is wonderfully free of the Hollywood spit-and-polish. It’s raw, provocative, and often hilarious.
The film is also a prescient one. The 2016 US presidential race proved just how low the political discourse could go and how a disturbing number of Americans responded positively to that depravity. In 1983, it was easy and harmless to shrug off Flynt’s provocations. Too many people did the same only five years ago and Americans wound up with a small-fingered vulgarian in the White House.
There are concerns that the country is headed for an equally bad fate in the upcoming midterms. In his inimitable fashion, Flynt urged anyone who would listen to wake up and fight back. As Larry Flynt for President reminds viewers, it’s a message the country still needs to hear.