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State of the Union: The movie is the message

By Betty DeRamus
In Detroit

In the most fiercely contested US election in decades, former Detroit News columnist Betty DeRamus takes a trip to the cinema in her home town to see how important films are in the race to the White House.

One of the most intriguing entrees on America's political menu this year might be a movie - but it has no name yet and only a few people have actually tasted it.

Michael Moore wants President Bush removed from office
No, I'm not talking about Michael Moore's new Bush-bashing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Millions of Americans - liberal and conservative - are hurrying to see that movie. Some unbelievers have slammed it as a stack of cheap shots, a tangle of half-truths and paper-thin conspiracy theories.

However, for people inclined to distrust or dislike Bush, attending Moore's film is sort of like going to church.

You already know the basic text - the gospel according to baseball-cap-wearing St Michael - but you want to see how the minister will package and deliver it.

In fact, most people flocking to this movie have already heard about the high points of its sermon: those seven minutes when Bush keeps reading a story to children after learning about the attacks on the World Trade Center; the image of Bush, as a young man, bragging about people who want to do business with him because his father is the president.


They've also heard about that anguished final scene where a woman named Lila Lipscomb mourns the death of her son in Iraq. A woman who encouraged her children to join the military and who never questioned the need for the war in Iraq, Lila Lipscomb's grief is, well, operatic.

It spills over the movie screen and oozes down aisles. It seeps through walls, splashes against seats and penetrates hearts. And Michael Moore captures every ounce of these feelings.

Heavy handed? You bet. One-sided? For sure. It's also film-making at its most effective. I can only wonder if that other film, the unnamed one I'll talk about later, will play as well.

I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 at a theatre in Southfield, Michigan, just outside Detroit's city limits and less than an hour from Michael Moore's gritty, down-at-the-heels home town, Flint.

Besides putting the world on wheels, Detroit built this country's first urban freeways and created the catchy Motown Sound - music whose bass line echoed the boom and clang of auto factories.

Nowadays, Detroit is a majority African-American city of nearly one million surrounded by mostly white and far more prosperous suburbs.


Though whites and blacks mingle easily in area shopping malls, concert halls, supermarkets and other businesses, Detroit is part of the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States.

America's obsession with films didn't begin with Fahrenheit 9/11 - we've been defined as a nation by movies

It's a smorgasbord of hot and cold, bland and spicy dishes. Most of all it's a city struggling to reinvent itself for an age when skills matter more than muscle and your competition might live in India.

On the day I watched Moore's movie, the audience was a mixed congregation of whites and African-Americans, adults and teens - very much like the mix of people in the film.

My companion, an African-American elementary school teacher in Detroit, had already seen the film once but couldn't wait for a second helping.

We saw the movie on a Monday afternoon, usually a quiet time for movie theatres. But movie-goers filled the Star Theatre and most seemed to be among the converted. They clapped frequently.

I couldn't help wondering how so many people found time to attend a day-time movie. Were they night shift employees? Were they jobless?


However, later that day, the suburb-dwelling doorman in my apartment building assured me he would never, ever see the film.

He wasn't that crazy about either George Bush or John Kerry, but his feelings about Michael Moore could be easily summed up - he hates the very sight of the man.

A new film on John Kerry may change his public image
Of course, America's obsession with films didn't begin with Fahrenheit 9/11. We've been defined as a nation by movies, even in political and social realms.

To give one example: the 1915 silent film, Birth Of A Nation, certainly changed the country and not for the better.

The movie was America's first blockbuster and it pioneered close-up and wide-angle shots and other technological marvels.


Crawling with nasty stereotypes about meddling whites from the North and newly freed and out of control blacks, the post Civil War epic also revived the nearly dead Ku Klux Klan - an anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic hate group.

And, for a number of film stars, movie screens provided the perfect backdrop for political careers - think of Ronald Reagan.

I think the Republicans should be worried, particularly if the contest between Bush and John Kerry remains a dead heat

Pumping Iron, a 1977 documentary about body-builders training for a competition, turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into the he-man action hero who eventually became California's governor.

But the roaring success of Fahrenheit 9/11 suggests the American public is prepared to accept well-produced and powerfully-hyped documentary films as mass entertainment.

Michael Moore's two previous documentaries helped spark this shift. Reality television shows, so popular in both Britain and the US, probably also helped prime audiences to accept real people as stars and the truth - or some jazzed up version of it - as entertainment.

If television viewers can watch plastic surgery, celebrity poker and house makeovers, why shouldn't they embrace movies with political and social messages too?


That, perhaps, is why George Butler and Max Cleland are, like Michael Moore, making a documentary they hope will influence this year's elections.

Cleland is a veteran who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam and spent six years in the US Senate.

Butler is the documentary filmmaker who produced Pumping Iron and made Schwarzenegger a star. He's also a long-time friend of Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry.

The two men are making a biography of Kerry who, in public at least, displays about as much personality as a paper towel and has failed to arouse even voters who dislike Bush.

Butler and Cleland are no doubt hoping that Kerry, who spoke out against the war in Vietnam after fighting in it, will be much more of a tall-striding presence on screen than he is in real life.

Fire and flash

Those who have seen previews say it includes a powerful photograph of Kerry crumpling on the lawn after throwing a Vietnam vet's medals onto the Capitol steps.

This $1.3 million, 90-minute Kerry documentary is supposed to be ready for theatrical release in September. That's assuming the filmmakers can find a bold title and a distributor.

That's also assuming there's a paying audience for a political documentary that's not likely to display much of Fahrenheit 9/11's fire and flash.

Will the Bush team shrug off these cinematic assaults and keep relying on traditional television ads, rallies and barbecues?

The Bush administration has been taking the high ground and keeping mostly silent about Mr Moore's film and the Kerry biography.

But I think the Republicans should be worried, particularly if the contest between Bush and John Kerry remains a dead heat.

Even people who don't worship in Michael Moore's church might be tempted to join after seeing images of a president who seems immobilised by crisis and a mother who, in a world devastated by war, seems to be weeping for us all.

Betty DeRamus was a regular columnist for the Detroit News for 17 years. She is the author of Living Legends, which profiles eight inspirational African-American women, and has just completed a book about the Underground Railroad.

The new BBC series State Of The Union is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 2050 BST and repeated on Sundays at 0850 BST.


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