Tea Party: The Documentary Film, chronicling the movement from Bush’s bailouts to 9/12, probably won’t be coming to any theaters near you. It “premiered” last night in Washington’s Reagan Center, with Astroturf instead of a red carpet and tuxedoed anti-tax types instead of shining starlets. The producers haven’t secured a distribution agreement, and are relying on word of mouth and their website to promote the DVD (a perfect Christmas gift, at only $19.95). That’s fitting, certainly, for a movement that bills itself as the ultimate people-powered phenomenon: Who needs official channels, when you’ve got a couple wealthy, impassioned supporters?
“This whole thing was financed by American Express,” the Atlanta ad man Luke Livingston told me after the screening, patting his pocket. “My American Express card.”
Back in April, Livingston says, he knew that the tax day tea parties popping up all around the country would eventually lead to some sort of protest in Washington. So the financier—whose clients range from Chick-fil-A to Bob’s Carpet Mart—teamed up with local talk radio host Joel Foster, and found six activists to track as they worked their way up from smaller events to the big March on Washington in September. Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks promoted the release at watch parties around the country, conservative luminaries including Jim DeMint and Joe Wilson headlined the D.C. rollout last night, and the movie landed on Rachel Maddow—the kind of buzz many studios couldn’t pay to get.
The 77-minute film, like Glenn Beck’s video trailer for the 9/12 Project, opens with an apocalyptic vision of storm clouds in Washington, as Democrats and Republicans sign checks to keep big companies from going under. Frighteningly high numbers for stimulus line items scrolls across the screen, as drums boom and writing on parchment goes up in flames. After that opener, though, the tension lifts: This is a hopeful story, after all.
The film’s protagonists are representations of the archetypal tea party activist. Dr. Fred, a primary care physician, just wants to take out kidney stones without interference from the government. Jenny Beth, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, went bankrupt and started up a cleaning business to support her family. Jack, a health insurance agent, “risks losing his job” under proposed health care reforms and is finally taking a stand. The camera lingers around their dinner tables and foreclosed houses, with low-angle shots dramatizing their somber, heroic faces.
The movie has a certain defensiveness, stemming from the sense of persecution that has become part of tea party mythology. Andrew Breitbart riffs on how the mainstream media maligned and ignored the tea partiers, and the main characters talk incessantly about the small donations that funded their signs, web sites, and buses to Washington—not, God forbid, the corporate underwriters that Maddow et al harp on as the movement’s real drivers. Tea Party patron saint Glenn Beck is nowhere to be found, perhaps as much out of an inability to secure the rights to network footage as the desire to identify the movement with Real Americans rather than TV talking heads (just today, Livingston told me, CNBC gave them permission to use a clip of Rick Santelli’s anti-bailout rant, which may make it into a future cut).
The greatest defensive tic in the movie, though, centers around race. One of the featured characters is a black Detroit native named Nate, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 “from an upbringing that taught him to mistrust America because of the color of his skin,” but who has since seen the light. The camera follows him as he tells a rapper named Bonz about how the government is stealing money from his pocket. He then tries to explain black psychology. “If they can’t make it, they might as well let the government take care of them,” Nate says, as if to answer the question of why he’s virtually the only person of color marching in a sea of white faces on the Mall. Then there’s William, a Revolutionary War reenactor who also happens to be the pastor of a black church and takes umbrage at allegations of racism. “It shows they do not really have an argument, when they accuse people of racism,” he says.
In the end, the film is not so much a documentary as a tribute: the tea party movement as it would like to be remembered. The premiere, attended by maybe 150 supporters, felt like a fond reminiscence of their finest hour, leaving the question: Is this movement going any further? In the last few months, there has been tension in the tea party ranks, and each protest grows crazier and more concentrated.
I asked one of the movie’s characters, a “20-something young professional” named Dave, whether he had stayed involved in conservative activism after the 9/12 march. “As far as my daily life and routine goes, no,” he said. “It was something I did in my free time.” After finishing his degree in political science, Dave plans to go into the Marines, and then law school. He’s looking to the G.I. Bill to pay for it.