August in the Empire State
(Empire Films / Rumur Releasing)
Video Review by Adam McKibbin
As all eyes shift to the 2008 presidential election, it’s instructive to take a trip back to 2004, which, through the lens of Gabriel Rhodes and Keefe Murren in August in the Empire State, seems in some respects to be about 50 years ago. It’s hard to imagine George W. Bush winning an election now—even against a lackluster candidate like Gore ’00 or Kerry ’04—after seeing the country issue him such a harsh rebuke in the midterms of 2006. His policies have been condemned, his minions have been disgraced, and his war—his legacy—is a failure.
August in the Empire State is set during a happier time for Republicans: the Republican National Convention of 2004. Bush had a clear and positive plan to move our nation forward (flash forward to 2007 and it turns out that the only people he’s moving forward are troops, troops, troops). Like this review, August in the Empire State doesn’t bother pretending it’s politically neutral, even though a few reviewers have praised it for being non-partisan…apparently missing, among other tips of the hand, the mournful doomsday score that rises when Bush finally appears on camera.
But instead of John Kerry riding to the rescue, it’s Cheri Honkala, who heads up the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which initially seems like a very small, ragtag assemblage of homeless, near-homeless and formerly homeless—but manages to grand marshal a large assembly of protestors from the U.N. Headquarters to the doors of the convention. Honkala is impassioned and sympathetic, though, on the latter note, the filmmakers make a brave choice by bookending the film with Honkala teaching her young child a variation on “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” that ends with “down came the rain and…washed that motherfucker out!” Might as well just alienate the social conservatives right off the bat… they probably weren’t coming along anyway, right?
Following her around is Salon’s Michelle Goldberg, who scribbles notes, speaks glowingly but realistically of Honkala’s efforts, and confronts the smug police spies that follow Honkala’s every move. The NYPD’s strategy for the convention seemed to be to put fifteen cops in a cluster around every person singing a song or scribbling a poster that was anti-Bush. Their constant, unsympathetic and repressive presence is one of the most troubling motifs in the film.
As an aside, I hate the inevitable Lame Protestor Chant. The one-for-all, all-for-one spirit is romantic and all that, yes, but it ends up producing the same effect as a church congregation mindlessly repeating after a minister or an arena rock crowd aping some singer’s instructions and clapping along like wind-up robots. Goldberg says that the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign has “tangible goals,” and maybe “Hey ho, hey ho, poverty has got to go” is a goal of sorts, but it certainly isn’t a plan. Maybe a Lame Protestor Chant isn’t the forum for analysis and proposed solutions; a documentary, on the other hand, would seem to be just that.
Rhodes and Murren do a fine job of keeping their film briskly paced while still managing to capture the essence of the protest movement and its effect as a whole rather than developing tunnel vision for their protagonists. The city is allowed, like it often is, to be a character in its own right, with the collisions between protestors and police offset by happier street scenes and the bustling, alluring chaos of New Yorkers trying to go about their usual business.
Stitched somewhat awkwardly into the narrative is Paul Rodriguez, the President of NYC’s Young Republican Club and an ill-fated candidate for the city’s Democratically dominated 12th District. His campaign is a Sisyphean endeavor, and his role as “well-intentioned conservative” within August in the Empire State seems to be the same. He’s surrounded by Republicans who say things like “poor people are lazy” and imply things like “my visit to New York would have been a lot better if I didn’t have to look at those queers freely walking down the street.” And then there’s the Darth Vader presence of Bush lurking on the projection screens, his empty rhetoric all the more eerie and enraging given the distance of time. Rodriguez makes his case that Americans need to be more self-reliant and less dependent on government handouts and then the filmmakers show him getting in over his head in a political debate with his own family. Before things turn ugly, though, Mama makes everyone shut up and play music together. If only we could all be so lucky.
More by this writer:
Peace Takes Courage - Interview
Anarchism in America [DVD]
Anti-Flag - Interview
Howard Zinn & Anthony Arnove - Readings from Voices of A People's History of the United States