A Story About Democracy

Over the last decade pundits have bemoaned the state of our democracy while historians remind us that the country has survived fractious times before. It is not uncommon for the losing side to feel that the elected official doesn’t represent them but it is rare to question the legitimacy of the vote. The 2020 presidential election unfortunately became all about the “Big Lie,” an outright denial of the system. A very serious version of playground politics — if I don’t like the outcome, I won’t play.

We are currently working on two documentaries about groundbreaking politicians who had the audacity to strive for positions that most would have thought unthinkable. Harold Washington, featured in Punch 9 for Harold Washington, became the first African American Mayor of Chicago, surviving a brutal campaign that was overtly racist, not to mention the corruption synonymous with then Chicago politics. Pete Buttigieg defied the odds of becoming a serious candidate for the presidency as a small town mayor who happened to be openly gay. His run for the nomination is recorded in the documentary Mayor Pete.

When Washington ran for Mayor in 1983, filmmaker Joe Winston was a teenager attending the high school across the street from where he lived. Winston wrote about him for the school paper and later when Washington was Mayor, he captured an event appearance on Super-8 film.

As Winston explains, “Years later, when Barack Obama made Chicago proud again as our nation’s first African-American President, I braced myself for the inevitable backlash. After all, I’d seen it before. So I was surprised, and frankly more than a little annoyed, by all the folks I met, mostly well-meaning white liberals, who seemed to think that America’s racial divide had been healed by Obama’s election. ‘Are you kidding me?’ I would retort, ‘Don’t you remember Harold Washington?’

Sure enough — once Obama took office, the very same political battles of Chicago in the 1980s erupted on the national scene. For me, it was like watching a Twilight Zone episode, a Sisyphean struggle America was doomed to repeat. The fact that Harold was in danger of being Santa-Claus-ified, or worse, largely forgotten, impelled me to make a film about him.”

Unlike Punch 9, a historical look backward, Mayor Pete is a contemporaneous view of his very improbable campaign with the kind of access that filmmakers dream of but rarely get. What both filmmakers shared as impetus was the political dysfunction they were witnessing in Washington.

Jesse Moss was inspired to pursue documentary filmmaking after seeing The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ behind-the-scenes look at the Clinton campaign. As he explains, “Little of my documentary work since has been overtly political. But the polarized drift of our country and political dysfunction had drawn my attention back to the fragility of our democracy and strengths and weaknesses of the men and women we choose to govern our republic. Was Pete Buttigieg the answer?

Pete signaled he was open to the project. I traveled to New York City in early April 2019, alone, with my camera, to meet him. He was cordial, but reserved. I began to film his public campaign appearance, and quieter behind the scenes moments. I discovered it was like holding on to a streaking comet. Fortunately, Pete remained true to his word, and allowed me access to the inner workings of the campaign and the more personal, intimate time he shared with his husband Chasten.”

It’s a wonder why anyone would run for office, especially given how much money is involved and how challenging some offices have become. Who would have thought that serving on the school board or as secretary of state could mean death threats. This past week’s election elated some and depressed others but for the most part those running accepted the outcome despite some very close races. Although the results in Virginia and New Jersey were surprising — at least to the Democrats — in Mayoral elections across the country there were firsts for women, Asian, African and Arab Americans. The dream remains alive.