Travis Leamons // Film Critic
An election year is an opportune time to release features of a political nature. This is especially true for documentaries.
We have looked at predominant civil rights leader John Lewis and a young Californian mayor some months back (view here). There also was one about future leaders from my home state of Texas (view here).
These three recent docs present us with some 1970s sounds from the Oval Office, a presidential photographer trolling the 45th Commander-in-Chief, and how laws and litigation have targeted minorities in exercising their rights to vote.
JIMMY CARTER: ROCK & ROLL PRESIDENT
Not rated, 96 minutes
Director: Mary Wharton
The “Rock & Roll President” subtitle of Mary Wharton’s documentary on the 39th president is a bit misleading. Jimmy Carter loved music of all types, though he was the first POTUS to routinely hang out with rock stars. For a man who owns his “peanut farmer” nickname with pride instead of barbarous offense, this doc observes how music helped a small-town politician from Georgia ascend to the highest office in the land.
As a producer of several music biographies for VH1, Wharton brings similar flair to her first feature documentary. Not a minute goes by where our ears don’t twinge with familiar tunes, or we don’t see a famous musician speaking candidly about Carter. Everyone has a fondness for music, to some degree, but it can seem weird when you learn what a famous somebody likes to listen to a particular artist.
In his campaigning days, Carter wasn’t listening to Bob Dylan as if he was trying to be cool or some counterculture poser; he honestly loved his music and found that it helped him connect with his son, Chip. Friendships with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and the Allman Brothers – the last of whom helped propel Carter into the Oval Office by playing fundraisers when he ran out of money – helped solidify the Georgia native as the first mainstream politician to align himself with the music of a counterculture generation: rock ‘n’ roll.
ROCK & ROLL PRESIDENT is not a hagiography of Carter’s life. It is a chronicle of how music was entwined with his political campaigning, presidency, and, finally, life back home in Georgia. Carter, who appears twice on camera, humbly asserts that “music is the best proof that people have one thing in common no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.” Wise words by a one-term president that had to handle the Iran hostage crisis, the Camp David Accords, and skyrocketing gas prices.
Sifting through archives, there was no shortage of material of President Carter entertaining at the White House. The best bit involves Dizzy Gillespie performing and having the president come up on stage and sing “Salt Peanuts.” Then there’s Carter’s inaugural gala, which included staunch Republican John Wayne paying respects to the new Commander-in-Chief, plus Aretha Franklin performing a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.”
There’s a stretch of the documentary that ties Carter’s music appreciation and how it was applied to foreign and domestic policy. That’s a bit of a reach in connecting the two, trying to refine some of the catastrophes that plagued his presidency. No, a better look at Carter is his achievements away from the White House, where he has accomplished more in political retirement than he ever did as president. Thankfully the documentary does, ensuring everything ends on a high note.
JIMMY CARTER: ROCK & ROLL PRESIDENT is a light, musical stroll through an administration, and how an affable Georgian raised on a farm in a predominantly black community became a rock ‘n’ roll statesman.
Now playing in “virtual cinemas” and hitting VOD on October 9, with a special presentation on CNN in January 2021.
ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes.
Director: Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus
ALL IN is, by all accounts, an advocacy documentary. Its intended purpose is to educate viewers on the electoral process’s failure in the U.S. and how suppression and disenfranchisement of minority voters is still an ongoing threat 200-plus years after establishing a representational democracy.
Framed around Stacey Abrams’ unsuccessful attempt to unseat Brian Kemp in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, the doc gives us a history lesson on voting rights, moving us through the Jim Crow era, women’s suffrage, and other means (like purging voter rolls), which have stagnated participation among U.S. residents to an alarming degree. Regardless of party affiliation, voting is the most patriotic act a citizen can do. To see how the practice has been amended and changed throughout history is fascinating and aggravating. And it has only gotten worse since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 2013 case of Shelby County (Alabama) v. Eric Holder (then U.S. Attorney General). With a 5-4 decision, the ruling found one of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional.
In theory, a Supreme Court Justice is supposed to be non-partisan. But for this ruling, it is disturbing that the five finding in favor of Shelby were Republican nominees to the Supreme Court, while the four dissenting were Democratic. To those that cling to the idea that his/her vote doesn’t matter, this ruling is proof that a single vote can make a difference.
Stacey Abrams, who serves as a producer, is the predominant talking head among those interviewed. Directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus present the rising political star with footage of a collegiate Abrams speaking at rallies and taking an interest in government affairs. This was after Abrams was stopped by a security detail at the Georgia governor’s mansion and was informed it was a private party for high school valedictorians from around the state. Yet, Abrams was. The valedictorian of her Avondale High School class was told, curtly, that she and her parents “didn’t belong.” That moment would become a major rallying cry for her gubernatorial bid, which saw her lose by approximately 50,000 votes – in a heated race where the closing of polling places and persons purged from voter rolls complicated the electoral process.
Voting is not unlike making a million dollars. For some, it is easy to achieve. The hard part is holding on to it. ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY, at times, feels like it was financed by the Democratic Party to steer audiences to vote blue for the November election. Reviews on Amazon Prime indicate as much. Abrams, as a producer on the documentary, also offers credence to this idea. Even if this is a leftist take on voting practices, does it undermine that history is again repeating itself when it comes to elections and suppressing votes? Fraud is the new Jim Crow, and an emphasis on underhanded practices, then and now, helps to inform those disenfranchised into thinking their votes don’t matter.
View it as political propaganda or a public service announcement, ALL IN makes it abundantly clear that the way to change is to get out and vote.
Now streaming on Amazon Prime.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.
Director: Dawn Porter
Having photographed both sides of the political aisle, as an official White House photographer to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Pete Souza had direct access to our country’s highest elected position. Then, after his job was done, he removed his hand from the camera flash and started to slip back into the world of anonymity. Then started “throwing shade” on social media. His target: President Donald Trump. Souza juxtaposing current POTUS tweets with photos of Obama with added captions. He would gain a following on Instagram, publish two photo books, and become a bit of a celebrity. Now he’s a documentary.
In what will surely not be must-see viewing for MAGA supporters, THE WAY I SEE IT presents the contrast in leadership in photographic form. Though the feature is less about Souza’s life as a photographer, serving more to use Souza’s words and photos be a highlight reel for former President Obama. It’s essentially a companion piece to the photographer’s 2017 coffee-table book “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.”
While Dawn Porter’s documentary does include Souza reminiscing about his time working for Reagan in his last year in office, this is clearly about reliving Obama’s presidency – the highs and lows, and more personal moments – through behind-the-scenes images and reflections.
A tale of two careers, working for “the most iconic Republican president of our generation, and then the most iconic Democrat President of our generation,” as Souza tells it, puts him in rarefied air. The highest of highs. But is it enough to cloud judgment as it pertains to expressing an opinion of political decorum and leadership? Quite possibly, as THE WAY I SEE IT and Souza’s publication of “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents” contrasts our current president’s headline-grabbing “tweetstorms” with eight years worth of images (more than 100,000) on how to lead and conduct oneself.
No longer having to be unobtrusive around his subjects, Souza talks opening about dealing with a crisis and the three points to concentrate. Leadership, character, and empathy. Snapping photos when Obama meets with parents after the Sandy Hook mass shootings is quite moving. As is the president meeting with a soldier injured by an IED and then discovering the two had met previously at the White House.
THE WAY I SEE IT may not be a fair and balanced look at the White House, but every picture tells a story. Compare Souza’s photos with those coming out of the White House under Trump’s administration, and the difference is readily apparent. Not to say that one photo technique is better than another, but the adage a picture is worth a thousand words says a lot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees it.
Now playing in select theaters. It will have an MSNBC special presentation on October 16.