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Three Insights into America’s Predicament at the recent New York Film Festival: MLK/FBI, City Hall, Nomadland

The New York Film Festival concluded several weeks ago; the much-anticipated Presidential debates came and went. Today we face the outcome of an existential election, and I find myself still thinking about three exceptional films at NYFF 58, two documentaries and one drama, that throw certain features of our national political crisis into sharp relief, intentionally or not, as only great films can do.

The documentary MLK/FBI, from accomplished director/producer/editor Sam Pollard, revisits the final decade in the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ending with his assassination in 1968, a period during which our tax dollars underwrote a campaign to track, surveil, profile, wiretap, blackmail, and slander him. Today we honor this great American as a prophet of peace, a civil rights hero, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for whom we celebrate a national holiday, yet scarcely two days after his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, an FBI internal memorandum described King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

Dr. King was not alone in being spied upon by the FBI. By the early 1960s, warrantless FBI surveillances and black-bag jobs had amassed a trove of “subversive” files on over 432,000 Americans including Supreme Court justices, movie stars, philanthropists, even a first lady (all available in the National Archives). This was the bounty of a crusade begun in 1950 by Senator Joseph McCarthy, his chief legal counsel Roy Cohn, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover among others to rid the U.S. government of communists (Red Scare) and “sex deviates” (Lavender Scare). Hoover himself had written Masters of Deceit, a 1958 book alerting Americans to the creeping “menace” of communism, pressing them to stand vigilant against “espionage and sabotage.”

By the time the FBI set their sights on Dr. King as a hidden communist (he wasn’t), a decade of prying into citizen’s sex lives had scored countless firings and resignations and generated cabinets of secret personal files that Hoover kept in his office—fat folders of typewritten field reports, transcribed wiretaps, internal memos, personal letters, bank records, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. Peek into Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana’s file, for instance, for proof of JFK’s affair with Judith Exner, at the time also Giancana’s bed buddy. Little wonder senators and congressmen avoided crossing Hoover for the 48 years he clung to power.

In surveilling King, the FBI hit pay dirt. An incriminating reel of audio tape arrived at the King family’s doorstep, addressed to his wife, Coretta, along with an unsigned letter speaking for “all of us Negroes” and castigating King as a “complete fraud.” “You are done,” said the letter. “There is but one way out for you. You better take it…”. (Evidence exists it was typed by W. C. Sullivan, the bureau’s No. 3 officer.) King and his wife decided to ignore the blackmail.

Evidence of King’s marital infidelities was incontrovertible, a fact MLK/FBI squarely confronts. And this is the film’s superpower. As Walt Whitman expressly put it, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We each contain multitudes, selves nested within selves, public selves and private selves that can in turn bring pride or shame. Who among us is perfectly formed? MLK/FBI posits that attacks on Dr. King’s character tied to his sexual self are a stalking horse, a false pretext used to undermine his true greatness as a deeply moral man and political leader for the ages. Coretta Scott King would agree.

(In an irony, FBI wiretaps of Dr. King’s phone conversations also preserve intimate glimpses into his principled thinking. For example, in an exchange with close adviser Stanley Levison, King pushed back against the idea that he should restrict his efforts to the civil rights movement. He had just come out against the Vietnam War in a major speech at New York’s Riverside Church, and Levison fretted over the phone that King was biting off more than he could chew. “I figure I was politically unwise but morally wise,” replied King. “I think I have a role to play which may be unpopular.”)

MLK/FBI is impeccably well-made. You may think you’ve seen newsreel footage of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but until you’ve seen the brilliantly edited opening sequence of MLK/FBI, you won’t realize how vivid this six-decades-old, black-and-white footage can be. The result of the digital transfer and restoration of the original film is sharp, clean, and stabilized; it’s as clear as looking out a window. This juices the jolt of familiarity that hits you as you see not only mixed crowds but hand-lettered signs that would not be out of place in a summer 2020 Black Lives Matter rally.

While director Sam Pollard is old enough to recall the days of Hoover—still FBI director in 1972 as he drew his last breath—he doesn’t assume a baseline understanding of the 1950s and 1960s on the part of younger audiences. MLK/FBI lays out the chronology and context of J. Edgar Hoover’s rise, the wiretapping of King (authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy), and the incessant lionization of the FBI across decades of mass media—newspapers, pulp magazines, radio, movies, TV—which, for most Americans, placed the integrity of the bureau beyond reproach. Like me, Pollard likely remembers a childhood when little boys across the country wanted to be a G-man when they grew up. (The third season of FBI on CBS premieres November 17; the spin-off, FBI: Most Wanted, debuted last January.)

In sketching these unsavory chapters of our history, Pollard taps the power of the spoken word. There are no talking heads in MLK/FBI. Witnesses, experts, and commentators—unidentified—are heard but not seen. As a result, we listen to what they say, not who is saying it. Only at the end are we treated to clips with lower thirds identifying the speakers as author David Garrow (Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Yale historian Beverly Gage, Andrew Young, King advisor Clarence Jones, retired FBI special agent Charles Knox, and former FBI director James Comey, who recalls feeling ill upon first reading the aforementioned FBI letter to King suggesting suicide.

Which brings me to Bill Barr. No wonder Trump expects Barr’s Justice Department, the FBI, and NSA to prosecute and bully his opponents, at his whim. No conspiracy theory needed here—simply connect the dots from Joe McCarthy to Roy Cohn, from Cohn to Trump, from Trump and Cohn to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Stone. Like any living septuagenarian, Trump easily recalls the days when a rogue FBI director could run the bureau like a Potomac branch of the Stasi, or when Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, could plan break-ins and hide slush funds. Barr, 70, would share these warm memories. This is the “Again” in their MAGA.

The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States showcases the folly of overreliance on the federal government in times of local and regional crisis. When the history of this period is written, its heroes will be governors and mayors who stepped up to fill the void of leadership when Trump choked and his administration abdicated its responsibility to organize a national Covid response. In this regard, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall is a timely, even uplifting, reminder of America’s capacity for institutional compassion.

Like most Wiseman films, City Hall is a deep dive, a four-and-a-half-hour field trip exploring the nuts and bolts of how a big eastern metropolis, Wiseman’s hometown of Boston, is actually run in the third decade of this millennium. City Hall is also a portrait-in-action of Mayor Marty Walsh, a sincere public servant who prefers rolling up his sleeves to facing TV cameras.

Filmed in 2018 and 2019, Wiseman and his long-time cinematographer John Davey have captured a pre-pandemic Boston before masks and social distancing—the once normal world we shall again inhabit, fate willing. In the short space since the filming of City Hall wrapped, we’ve encountered a deadly virus, a toll approaching a quarter million dead Americans, a cratering of the economy, slaughter of small businesses, nationwide school closings, unimaginable job losses, rampaging political polarization—and on a parallel track to national tragedy, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and the growing inventory of state murders that has sparked an unprecedented explosion of mass protest.

But even in the grip of contagion and social unrest, fires must be fought, potholes filled, garbage collected, fines imposed, and criminals apprehended. In depicting basic services that all city governments must provide, day in and day out, to sustain the welfare of the general public, Wiseman has profiled a period of time still recognizably similar to our current distressed moment, toxic politics included. At the time of filming, Mayor Walsh, whose parents were Irish immigrants, had already declared Boston a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, drawing retaliatory White House threats to defund Boston—to which Walsh defiantly shot back, “If people want to live here, they’ll live here. They can use my office. They can use any office in [City Hall].”

Walsh, who survived cancer at age 7, is a recovered alcoholic (23 years sober, he tells the public) who lives with his longtime girlfriend. Before election to mayor in 2013, he was president of Laborers’ Union Local 223, which he joined at age 21, and Chairman of the Committee on Ethics in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served 16 years. His personal struggles, working class bona fides, and Catholic background evince an empathetic everyman style reminiscent of Joe Biden, or closer to home, the “all politics is local” touch of Boston’s Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Imagine Spencer Tracy in Father Flanagan mode directed by Frank Capra and you get the idea.

Wiseman films Walsh explaining to a clutch of elderly citizens how not to give up personal information or fall for internet and phone scams; Walsh encouraging a Latinx Engagement group with “you are a diverse community within your community” and reminding them that Irish immigrants like his parents were once, too, derided as dogs and monkeys; Walsh addressing a sparse gathering of aging veterans at Faneuil Hall’s military museum, where a WWII vet equates PTSD to “shell shock,” a Vietnam vet recalls the nightmare of incoming artillery, and an Iraq vet, hole blown in his chest, explains why he opted to return to the war, no longer feeling he belonged in America. Walsh, drawing on years of participation in a 12-step program, implores each of them to reach out to Boston’s Veterans Affairs Office for help. It’s an overtly moving scene.

There’s also Walsh speaking to a group concerned with racial equity; castigating Washington’s coddling of the NRA in front of a gaggle of reporters; addressing food insecurity at the Greater Boston Food Bank while helping to load free food for distribution; and donning an apron to serve Thanksgiving dinners at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. And, not least, waxing jubilant at Fenway Park after the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series rout of the L.A. Dodgers.

It would be misleading, however, to leave the impression that sequences with Mayor Walsh predominate in City Hall. Over the course of this lengthy film, his appearances are limited and his scenes separated by many others, including periodic montages of streetscapes and artfully framed municipal buildings against the sky—filmed from the first floor up, cropping people and cars to isolate architectural form—interspersed with recurring establishing shots of the Brutalist fortress that is City Hall and the modern glass and steel Police Headquarters in Roxbury Crossing. But it’s Walsh’s engaged and humane spirit that sets the tone of City Hall.

In trademark Wiseman style, considerable screen time is given over to protracted community meetings and procedural activities at City Hall itself: scenes of police and city officials around a table coordinating crime-response services, call center employees fielding complaints, a task force meeting to prevent evictions, another discussing homelessness services, another planning social services for the South End, another addressing mental illness issues, another discrimination in housing and how to respond to altered rules from Trump’s HUD that contravene the Fair Housing Act, and so on. No one grandstands. No one draws lines in the sand. In meetings of community advocates, city bureaucrats, planners, officials, and police representatives, everyone appears to speak their mind, everyone appears to listen to one another.

In City Hall, Wiseman, who edits his work with consummate deliberation, is clearly telling us: this is how government of the people, by the people, for the people should work. And now that we’ve glimpsed it, he’s saying, it’s up to us to elect leaders who will make this happen in our own communities.

In Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland—the latest showcase for Frances McDormand’s mastery, worthy of a third Best Actress statuette—we land on a different planet. One that, for me, is transfixing and problematic in equal parts. Let me attempt to explain why at times I felt at arm’s length from one of this season’s must-see films.

Nomadland has its roots in an exposé about geriatric labor undertaken by Jessica Bruder, an investigative journalist, author, and adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, whose findings first appeared as The End of Retirement: When you can’t afford to stop working, in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s.

Bruder’s topic was the systemic exploitation of retirement-age Americans who’d lost everything in the financial meltdown of 2008—savings, investments, pensions, homes, even unemployment benefits—and, as newly minted “downwardly mobile older Americans,” had opted to live on the road, hand-to-mouth, inhabiting their RVs, shorthand for recreational vehicles. (Her Harper’s article includes a capsule history of Social Security and the idea of retirement.) Always hard up for scratch to supplement paltry Social Security benefits (if so lucky), these silver-haired nomads drift across America, alighting in RV parks, campgrounds, and Walmart parking lots as they chase the prospect of temporary employment. Bruder reveals how they were subsequently targeted by the likes of Amazon and exploited as a convenient, low-wage, seasonal workforce. (An RV is any road-worthy vehicle outfitted as a living quarters: a pop-up camper, van, trailer, or larger motorhome. RV parks and campgrounds provide overnight hook-ups for electricity and water, sometimes sewer too. Gas is a major expense. RVs can get quite cold in the winter.)

In 2017 Bruder amplified these themes in a Wired article, Meet the CamperForce, Amazon’s Nomadic Retiree Army; a book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and a 16-minute documentary, CamperForce, produced by Laura Poitras’s Field of Vision (First Look Media). At the New York Film Festival’s online press conference, director Chloé Zhao said that Frances McDormand, having promptly optioned the book, approached her to direct at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival after seeing Zhao’s The Rider at the festival.

Zhao may be, in fact, the most consequential director of non-professional actors since Robert Bresson. Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) were both filmed in Oglala Lakota communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation using only locals playing versions of themselves in stories written by Zhao. In them, she wraps documentary realism in a cine-poetic sensuality worthy of Terrence Malick. DP Joshua James Richards’ hand-held widescreen cinematography is the delivery vehicle each time, tracing transients of emotion across stoic faces and the colors of dusk across flat, desolate horizons with equal artistry.

There’s ample reason Nomadland won Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival a week before its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. (City Hall also debuted at Venice.) As cinematic expression, it’s flawless. I’ve long admired films that entrust the viewer to thread subtle or offhand details into narrative whole cloth on their own, an approach Zhao develops in all three films. As before, Richards’ widescreen camera is nimble and attentive, perfectly in sync with Zhao’s story rhythms and discerning eye.

This time around, obviously, there’s a professional actor in the mix, several actually. In a role McDormand wears like a second skin, with a there-but-for-grace-of-God-go-I humility, Fran plays fictional nomad “Fern,” a composite drawn from Bruder’s subjects as well as McDormand herself. Props used by the character Fern include photos from Fran’s own childhood, a set of dinner plates Fran’s dad gave her upon high school graduation, and a terse sister relationship inspired by real life. Almost all of the other roles are played by the real-life RV nomads profiled in Bruder’s articles and book, who use their real names. Par for the course, Zhao coaxes seamless, unforgettable performances from each of them. In a secondary role, the great David Strathairn plays “Dave,” a nomad who repeatedly crosses paths with Fern and grows sweet on her despite her evident disinterest in allowing anyone to get close to her.

Fern’s narrative arc, such as it is, dominates the film—she’s in every scene. McDormand instinctively projects fierce independence and inner resolve, qualities that complemented her white hot rage in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here the character of Fern is the beneficiary, and she needs it. She’s a survivor facing reduced circumstances. She’s also an enigma, perhaps a loner by choice. If I have one quibble, it’s that Fern sometimes comes across as more dour than the situation warrants, as if it’s her natural disposition, the way she’s always been. What accounts for her emotional isolation?

Fern has just lost her house, her neighbors, and her entire town as Nomadland opens. This circumstance is based on the actual 2011 closing of Empire, a small company mining town in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, population 465 or so. Like the town, the open-pit gypsum mine had been owned and operated for 63 years by the United States Gypsum Company. But demand for gypsum sheetrock dried up as the Great Recession took a terrible toll on the construction industry. USG was badly hemorrhaging in 2011 when it suddenly decided to close both town and mine. In the blink of an eye, a way of life, years of personal relationships, even an entire zip code went poof! In Nomadland we learn that Fern’s deceased husband, Beau, had worked at the mine, that she had worked in USG human resources and was a substitute teacher; that she had taken care of Beau at the hospital, tending to his morphine drip. Now her entire adult life has been reset to zero. She has to live in a cramped, smelly van. How could she not be traumatized? Aggrieved?

In accounting for the existentialist outlook of her nomads, Bruder riffs off of Marx’s theory of alienation: a displaced class of aging workers, robbed of assets by capitalist chicanery, stripped of hope, purpose, even sense of self—until the open road leads to revitalization and campfire camaraderie. (That last part eluded Marx.) Concomitant are the tatters of America’s so-called social safety net. Adding insult to injury is the recruitment of retirees by CamperForce—the gung-ho name of Amazon’s seasonal work program for RV dwellers—offering physically demanding, low-wage warehouse jobs partly subsidized—true!—by federal tax credits. Basically, you’re working cheap for Jeff Bezos, a billionaire 113 times over.

In her South Dakota films, Zhao resisted mythologizing or romanticizing the American West, eschewing cliché and digging deep into the interior lives of her characters. Both films drew from several years of research, with Zhao getting to know her subjects intimately before casting them to play essentially themselves. In the case of Nomadland, it was Bruder who spent three years on-and-off with the nomads she profiled, clocking 15,000 miles and many evenings in the secondhand van she christened Halen. (Get it? Fern’s van is “Vanguard.”) It was Bruder who got herself hired for a week as a CamperForce employee, working alongside 350-pound Amazon industrial robots she likened to giant Roombas.

In Bruder’s field work, the following generally proved true: her nomads, mostly in their 60s and 70s, are white people without college educations, who have held an assortment of nonprofessional jobs in their working lives, who have encountered ruin, loss, or misfortune—death of a loved one, disastrous decisions in their personal or financial lives, bad credit, substance abuse, health crises, incapacitation—and who in their golden years wish not to burden anyone. They are headstrong, individualistic, self-reliant, resourceful, wry, skeptical, and persevering. And often funny.

My guess is they don’t read newspapers or watch TV much, although they may listen to talk radio as they motor across the Great Plains, badlands of south Utah, or Sonoran Desert. Wherever they hook up their RVs, their lifelines to family and the outside world are smartphones and Facebook. If this sounds like I’m describing Trump’s electorate, yes, I’m going there.

The RV life is not new. With 2,500 miles between America’s coasts, RVs and wheeled campers have featured in American leisure travel for 100 years, from a time before there were motels. During the Great Depression, to name a precedent, cars and campers were common domiciles for people who had lost their homes and livelihoods. Among the colorful characters in both Bruder’s journalism and Zhao’s film is Bob Wells, an evangelist for the RV lifestyle and an impassioned anti-consumerist, whose long white hair and beard qualifies him for seasonal Santa employment. The bold headline at the top of his influential, real-life website, Cheap RV Living.com, is “Welcome to the Best Times of Your Life.” Underneath it asks, “Maybe you were a gypsy, vagabond or hobo in a past life…?” Featured on the website are spreadsheet breakdowns of the costs of “wheel estate,” living out of your vehicle. Wells’ annual two-week Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in the Southwest desert, “Burning Man for retirees,” draws upward of 3,000 people. All of them white. Key scenes in Nomadland were filmed there.

Bruder has argued that, in light of law enforcement’s over-policing of driving while Black, African-Americans don’t feel safe living on the road in RVs or parking them overnight in Home Depot lots. (One doesn’t notice much Asian or Latinx presence in the RV community either.) A simpler explanation, I might suggest, is that birds of a feather flock together. Especially when it comes to camping. Pay attention and you’ll glimpse in Nomadland a Confederate flag tattoo on someone’s forearm. Why would Black Americans wish to sit around a nighttime campfire drinking beer with potential racists who are armed? This is the American West, after all. Let’s not pretend otherwise. (Change may be in the wings, however. There’s a growing cohort of young Black van-dwellers on YouTube, many of them notably women.)

I have aging family members who are part of the RV nation, who’ve spent 25 years traversing the continent, sampling its vastness and endless raw beauty from the road. I love them dearly, despite the fact they’re also staunch members of the Fox News nation. This is true of all of their friends, on the road and off, who voted for Trump in 2016 and shall again. They do not consider themselves racists and take umbrage at the accusation. They contain Whitman’s multitudes.

I’d like to believe my relatives are not part of the 56% of Republicans who, according to a September Civiqs poll, believe QAnon theory is mostly or partly true. A more recent YouGov poll obtained the same result. Perhaps in time we’ll look back at this period of polarization, paranoia, and grievance as an aberration. In the meantime, the family that sidesteps together, stays together.

McDormand has said that Nomadland is not meant to be political, and I understand her. Like City Hall, Nomadland was filmed pre-pandemic. No onscreen social distancing. After watching and admiring this remarkable film, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Would Fern wear a mask?

Release date for MLK/FBI, distributed by IFC Films, is January 15, 2021. City Hall is available via streaming starting October 28 from New York’s Film Forum Virtual Cinema and November 6 from Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater Virtual Screening Room. Release date for Nomadland, from Searchlight Pictures, is December 4, 2020.

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