Charming Jesse


Maybe we’re only getting to
see Dear Jesse, Tim Kirkman’s letter to his native state’s
senior senator, because the footage Kirkman shot during Helms’s 1996 noncampaign
included a fleeting interview with a then-unknown Matthew Shepard— a minute or so
of chitchat appended as a
postscript to the version airing on Cinemax January 19. But while Shepard’s murder
clinches the case against Helms’s gay baiting all too vividly, the most touching thing about Dear Jesse is that it isn’t a rant. Besides a hometown (Monroe) and an alma mater (Wingate), subject and filmmaker also share, as the movie puts it, “an obsession with
homosexual men”— Helms because he’s a homophobe,
Kirkman because he’s gay. But one of them is also so sweet-tempered that you know he daydreams of Jesse not only watching this movie, but recognizing the error of his ways as
a result.

Instead of attacking Helms head-on, Kirkman’s shoestring documentary meanders
along with the director on a
return trip from New York to North Carolina. Between autobiographical reminiscences, he’s on the lookout for Tarheels who refute Helms’s benighted worldview— an out gay mayor, a middle-class lesbian couple, an adoptive mother raising a biracial child. Conceptually, this has its mawkish side, but Kirkman’s optimism is appealing and his pleasure in people infectious. When his interviewees discuss Jesse, pro or con, what’s fascinating is their intimacy with a figure who dates back to their childhoods— a cross between the Wizard of Oz and the Grinch. Among the better-known talking heads, novelist Lee Smith and her husband, political writer Hal Crowther, display the gallant good cheer of the Southern progressive, and Alan Gurganus tells how he got mesmerized by the shape of Helms’s face— “like a fist.” While you’d never expect a movie about Jesse Helms to be charming, funny comes with the territory— although one joke I won’t spoil is Kirkman’s discovery of which institution is now headquartered in the Monroe “haunted house” that terrified him as a toddler.