It’s comforting to think of our current national truth-crisis as a historical aberration, a one-time cock-up that Robert Mueller will soon settle with all the definitive finality of Hercule Poirot fingering a murderer. But, come on: If the Donald Trump years have found Americans fully divorced from any shared conception of verifiable reality, the trial separation started years before. Recall John McCain in 2008, stating the following in a presidential debate: “We need to know the full extent of Senator [Barack] Obama’s relationship with Acorn, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” Candidate Obama smirks when McCain says this, more disgusted than amused, already exhibiting what would become perhaps his greatest flaw as president: his conviction that the American people would never fall for the patent bullshit that so often got flung at him.
That moment is a centerpiece of Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s fitfully illuminating, haphazardly structured, and terribly titled new doc, ACORN and the Firestorm. The film’s subject, at first, is Acorn itself, the collective of community-based activist organizations that, since the 1970s, had advocated for low-income families in over a hundred American cities. Through vintage footage and the compelling testimony of activists, the doc crisply surveys Acorn’s founding, its think-local ethos, and its founders’ commitment to the hard work of knocking on doors, solving neighborhood problems, building homes from blight, battling predatory lenders, fighting for a living wage, and registering citizens to vote. By the 2000s, Acorn had proved so successful that the last two items on that list made it a target: Companies don’t like living-wage protests, just as politicians that Acorn supporters are likely to vote against don’t like voter-registration drives. It became an article of faith on the right that Acorn committed systematic and expansive voter fraud.
The filmmakers don’t bother tracking down the source of that belief or even, really, demonstrating its absurdity. Instead, they trust — as Obama seemed to in that debate — that we’re all smart enough to know it’s a lie already, that we’ll all sputter in disgust when Iowa Rep. Steve King says, in recent footage, that he carries an acorn with him everywhere he goes “to remind me of what they nearly accomplished to this constitutional republic. They came very close to destroying the confidence of the American people in the electoral process.” (King is so concerned about the integrity of our elections that he has recently called for the investigation of Mueller and former FBI director James Comey.)
This oversight makes much of the ridiculous fate that befalls Acorn as murkily arbitrary in the film as it was in real life. The filmmakers don’t get Acorn activists to walk us through the truth of their voter drives. And they don’t get a clear answer from Hannah Giles, the young woman whose fake-journalistic stunt would bring the organization down, on the subject of the source of her antipathy. We can see the answer: In the most upsetting new footage here, we see her pastor father gas on about how he raised “warrior chicks” who stood apart from “the teenage fart cloud,” each “a leader amongst the schleps.” He insists he’s no partisan, even as he cracks dumb gay jokes and declares that he hates politicians. Giles reports that he took her to “conservative conferences” growing up; at some point she got inspired to “research” Acorn and became convinced that it was corrupting American politics. So she set out to do something about it.
You’ve seen what she did. With the perennially debunked video provocateur James O’Keefe, Giles visited Acorn offices on the East Coast and in California, pretending to be a prostitute looking for help in trafficking underage girls into the country. O’Keefe, in his grandmother’s chinchilla coat, played her pimp — or did he? One of the chief frustrations of ACORN and the Firestorm is that the filmmakers introduce these videos early on, showing them as O’Keefe edited them, and as they were shown on FOX News, with the skinny white boy strutting along like all he knows of sex work is a Superfly GIF and the employees at Acorn only too happy to offer aid to his lawbreaking. No doubt about it: The videos suggest Acorn workers cheerily support sex trafficking. But it takes a full hour of movie before the filmmakers acknowledge O’Keefe’s perfidy. Of course, those videos were deceptively edited — O’Keefe never entered an office in costume — and O’Keefe eventually had to pay $100,000 to an employee he had smeared. In the video, the Acorn worker appears eager to help traffic young women; in real life, he called the cops on O’Keefe and Giles. Even when exposing the truth, the film’s treatment is cursory, less involved than a Rachel Maddow segment. They offer a couple of excerpts of an unedited copy of O’Keefe’s videos, note that Acorn was cleared of all wrongdoing, and then move on.
Is it too much to ask that the makers of a documentary about a controversy actually report the controversy out, in persuasive detail, rather than rely on clips from cable news and the reports of governmental agencies? The Giles-O’Keefe affair remains opaque: Why don’t we hear more from Acorn employees who encountered the duo? Why don’t we hear about what services Acorn might actually offer a sex worker in crisis, which Giles claimed to be? Why not lay out for us what the everyday activities of Acorn offices in the 2000s, about the kinds of situations the workers faced, and the cost of this prank on the communities Acorn served? Why is the funding and provenance of O’Keefe’s videos not more clearly laid out, showing us how, systematically, Giles’ idea became O’Keefe’s project that became Breitbart’s front page that became Sean Hannity’s lead story that became Acorn’s last rites?
Yes, Acorn soon got shuttered. In name, at least. The 2009 Acorn imbroglio remains a nadir of the media’s credulousness and the Democratic Party’s cowardice. Just weeks after the videos hit Breitbart.com, and then got covered as a legitimate scandal by nonpartisan news media, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill defunding Acorn. (About 15 percent of its budget came from the federal government.) That inspired Acorn’s private funders to bow out, too. The story stunned in 2009, and it stuns still today. The failure of the press to vet the videos and instead report the controversy anticipates its later failure to blast Trump rallies into our faces while treating every picayune Hillary Clinton email update as a potential high crime.
ACORN and the Firestorm fumbles with the media story, offering cable-news talking heads in montage but not digging deeply into how the story spread — or why elected Democrats believed they had to shut Acorn down. That sense of fumbling shapes the film. Atlas and Pollard close with a stunt of their own, a we-gotta-end-this-thing-somehow confrontation between Giles and Acorn’s Bertha Lewis, who was the CEO and chief organizer until its disbanding. (She has since founded the Black Institute.) Lewis sits down with Giles on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for as unproductive a conversation as one can imagine. Giles says, in interviews beforehand, that she still believes she did the right thing in her prank/sting operation, though she seems to harbor some ambivalence toward O’Keefe. Like her pastor father, she considers herself above partisanship — she just hates “corruption.” Just before her meeting with Lewis, she announces, in voiceover, that she thinks it will be good for America to see her “calmly talking through issues and our viewpoints.”
It doesn’t go well. It can’t. Only one of these women has a viewpoint that can hold up to conversational scrutiny. “The idea of helping low-income families is noble,” Giles says, “but any organization — all these organizations — are corrupt.” That’s the extent of her argument: She hatched the plan that brought down Acorn because of her vague idea that it’s “corrupt.” It’s worth noting that, not long before this scene, we hear Giles lament the way that she has been portrayed in the press: “People just assume a lot about me because of the way the media has spun things.” Lewis capably exposes the blithe thoughtlessness of Giles’s position. It’s tragic that the rest of the film never lays out its own case with sufficient clarity and power to change Giles’s mind.
ACORN and the Firestorm
Directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard
First Run Features
Opens April 6, Metrograph
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