Welcome to Leith (2015)

In “Welcome to Leith,” a documentary about a tiny North Dakota town with a population of 24 (“including children,” the residents boast), the residents explain how they usually bent over backwards to welcome new neighbors to the area. Then they discovered that the new guy in the neighborhood, who was buying up property and inviting others to join him there, was a nationally-recognized white supremacist leader who planned to take over little Leith, North Dakota, drive out the existing residents, and create a white nationalist mecca.

The award-winning documentary, streaming on Netflix, follows white supremacist Craig Cobb‘s attempt to take over the town, and how the township organizes in resistance. Local residents and anti-racist organizations organize a protest in Leith against Cobb and his allies, and strategize a mixture of legal and municipal methods to force the case against Cobb.

There are several things that make the movie so compelling, not the least of which is the tension of first and second amendment rights in the conflict between the townspeople and the white supremacists. But of note to me personally, and to the people I’ve shared the movie with to date, is how the rural townspeople rise up — contrary to stereotype — against racism. I live in Indiana, the birthplace of several white nationalist movements, where folks feel comfortable tagging inclusive churches with pro-Nazi and anti-semitic graffiti and talking to the paper about how they organized in favor of Dylann Roof, the young man who staged a massacre on black church-goers in the name of white nationalism. Here, conversations about white nationalist movements in our midst are frequently met with patriotic proclamations along the lines of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” which is honorable, and certainly in the spirit of first amendment freedoms, but is a frustratingly passive argument in the face of movements that openly attempt to extinguish racial and ethnic minorities from our community. 

First amendment and social justice tensions are real, and this movie skates over them to declare victory for the townspeople, which is understandable given the content. There is no first amendment exception for “hate speech” — Americans are free to criticize and say any hateful thing they wish about others, in just the same way you may criticize capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans. The arguments for and against the creation of a “hate speech” category are rich and nuanced (and way over my head), but however you land on the issue, the first amendment doesn’t protect provocateurs and demagogues from criticism or disapproval. A high-minded civil libertarian argument becomes more difficult when you have a heavily armed white nationalist patrolling the boundaries of your neighborhood and threatening to turn your town into a hotbed for white nationalist movements from around the world. Which begs the question of the viewership: what will you do when you see Leith in your own communities?

Review: The Great Gatsby

“Shot through the heart /
and you’re to blame /
You give love a bad name”

I dragged the big kid to see The Great Gatsby a few weeks back. I didn’t say much about it because there was so little to say. Like the rest of the Luhrman catalog, it was big on visuals and light on substance.

(Like Daisy! Ha.)

In all seriousness, this was the movie’s weakness. It stripped the story of the novel’s heavy social commentary about money, social class, the allure of wealth and the dangers of greed, and turned it into a cautionary tale of love lost. This Great Gatsby was all about Leo’s broken heart.

But for some reason my dissatisfaction with the movie has been stuck in my craw. Finally, I realized: It’s frustrating for me that major moments in women’s history always seem to be filtered through the lens of fashion and style, love stories, and decorative trends. The thing about the Daisies of the flapper era is that flappers were a full-blown, grassroots, feminist revolution. It was a trend that defied social class and race and elevated youth culture in a way that wasn’t seen again for forty years in American culture. Fitzgerald seemed to understand this even if he wasn’t able to write an authentic female character, but Luhrman somehow stripped Fitzgerald’s Daisy of any intrigue. In his hands, Daisy was a video vixen, not a wealthy ingenue, and her seduction was not her independence, enthusiasm and sexual freedom, but her weakness and fragility.

See the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford (yow) and Mia Farrow instead, which was similarly panned but nevertheless has so much more substance than this one.

Review: Dirty Driving

HBO usually has a variety of great documentaries every month, and this month the one that caught my eye just happened to take place in Anderson, Indiana, a very blue collar area within an hour of my home. Anderson, like many manufacturing towns in the Midwest, is steadily heading towards the likes of Flint, Michigan: struggling, dying, devastated, hanging on. But like many Midwestern areas, if you ask Anderson’s residents, they’re struggling but on the up-and-up, aiming to be positive despite the loss of jobs, staying afloat by focusing on family and other interests.

“Dirty Driving: Thundercars of Indiana” is about the struggling Midwestern middle class and the hobbies that take the place of work and career when industry dies, in this case the individual innovation that is a forefront in Indiana’s racing culture. When the auto manufacturing plants that pumped small towns full of money up and left, they also left behind the driving culture that so infects the workers that once populated their lines. In “Dirty Driving,” laid-off workers and their car-fanatic families remove all their ambitions from job and career and put all their knowledge and passion for the industry into their junk cars to race at the Anderson Speedway, talking shit and fighting over their victories and losses as the cameras roll.

This is a slice of a particular regional class culture.  If you read audience commentary on the film, a lot of locals do what they can to separate themselves from the documentary. To your average white-collar folks, these are some rough people that in many ways amp up the Larry the Cable Guy stereotype. There’s no shame in it, I know it and in some ways am of it, and it is what it is. Some of the quotes I might take from the movie are outright ridiculous, yet the director doesn’t take on the mocking eye of, say, Michael Moore. He genuinely respects the subjects’ need for escapist entertainment, and moreover, respects the kind of time and innovation the subjects put into their cars.

dirty driving newsFamily overwhelmingly takes the forefront in this picture, even before the problematic economic and industrial issues presented. Each hero in the film is part of a larger familial unit that stands behind and supports them. From Alice Riall, the “oldest grandmother in the Thundercar division” who has a chance at winning first place this season, to Wild Willie Coffman, whose arm was mangled in a motorcycle accident and drives one-handed in vehicles modified for him to maximize the use of his mobile arm, the backdrop is the family unit whose time and economic resources are fully invested in the dream of the Winner’s Circle.

…which is exactly what struck me as a lifelong resident with a love-hate relationship with Indiana. When people can’t make their success by paycheck, they make it elsewhere, sinking their wide array of trade knowledge into another avenue that is often exclusive to white, able, heterosexual men. But not always. The redneck pride, the sexism, the racism, exists alongside respect for women and people of color who are active within the subculture. The men in the documentary, for example, despite calling one another pussies who can’t drive, have no compunctions about their daughters, wives, and mothers learning the trade and actively encourage their participation. Sometimes it’s a mindfuck to participate in this kind of local subculture, to be accepted and reviled at the same time. But by God, they’re Family, people say, and where we come from these are big steps in small measures. We know this is small fries by metropolitan measures, but liberal progress in rural areas is measured by those on the racetrack, in the office, the kitchen, and the factory, who see people of whatever color, gender, and ability as people who have your back in the workplace, the bar, and the home.

On a personal note, the one social measure that hit home for me was one that hit the pocketbook. One of the major sponsors for the race cars featured on the Anderson Raceway was my employer, a small regional company that was taken over by a major national corporation earlier this year. Just this Friday, twenty of my fellow employees were laid off, people whose names were represented on the windshields of these cars as recent as 2007, when the movie was filmed. The new company that takes its place is unlikely to show the kind of regional pride that led to the sponsorship of these racers and contributed to their ability to stay on the racetrack.

This is a look at what happens when your opportunity fades and you’re left with what you know, even if that’s just a hobby, and a six-foot, plastic trophy takes the place of your medical insurance because that’s all you’ve got. So yes, this is a sports documentary without any direct link to mainstream feminist issues, but if you are interested in worker’s rights, micro-level examinations of the economy, or obviously NASCAR-style racing, this one’s for you.

[Dirty Driving, Official Site]

Originally posted on Feministe on 11.30.2008.