Another day in America, another racist killing. A Black man, Daunte Wright, shot dead for a dangling air freshener. Another documentary laying bare the vicious and institutionalized hate in our country, another example of journalists, filmmakers and social media activists seeking justice by telling the same story. A collaboration between PBS’s Frontline, ProPublica and UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, writer/director Rick Rowley’s documentary American Insurrection follows journalist A.C. Thompson as he loosely tracks the increasingly violent, open and fearless alt-right over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, from Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally to the insurrection at the capitol. With interviews that’ll make your skin crawl, American Insurrection can still feel as powerless and lost as the rest of us who watched a mob attack Congress on January 6.
The doc retreads some ground from Rowley and Thompson’s Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, further exploring the ingrained connection between the alt-right and the military while expanding its thesis to include the latest and greatest from America’s neverending supply of creative hate. It’s our cottage industry, after all.
Covering both large-scale group events (Charlottesville, the Portland right-wing rallies, the Richmond gun rights protest) and more specific criminal acts (those of Steven Carrillo, the planned kidnapping of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer), we watch Thompson and other investigative reporters put boots on the ground—but their reporting can only be so confrontational considering how violent these people are. Thompson already wears a bulletproof vest. And that’s mostly ok, seeing as the point of the doc is more about shedding light on the movement’s facets than exposing individuals.
And as we see in an interview with a young militant faction’s leader, these aren’t individuals that really fear exposure. There’s a bit of DIY media training that goes into being this kind of asshole: A group of people, who’ve grown up knowing exactly how far they can explicitly go without getting banned from social media or other online forums, saying just enough. Standard journalistic professionalism is drowned out by dog whistles. That’s part of what makes American Insurrection a frustrating watch. For every reported-out connection showing the direct line between different hate groups and/or the U.S. military, there’s another kids gloves interview that just feels like giving yet another platform to these people. People who claim to have left the Klan behind for more “acceptable” hate groups like the Proud Boys, who explain that they are actually not extreme any more, thank you very much, simply because there was someone in the White House that legitimized their views. For anyone paying attention (or watching PBS, for that matter), that line of thinking has been clear for years. At least the doc touches on the radical right in its most presently dangerous form, ignoring the hateful confusion exploited in and around QAnon conspiracies in favor of the militarized boogaloo movement’s wannabe tactical doomsday preppers.
The latter is another example of a violent group using a childish name to mask their seriousness (Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, Lads Society—it’s no coincidence that so many market themselves as places of youthful male acceptance and solidarity) and yet another link directly tying these groups to militarized institutions. You may have seen their military-adjacent memes if you know people who’ve served and, like 4chan’s Nazification of poor Pepe the Frog, they are just the surface images helping to make their radical violence go down smooth—and identify like-minded people ready to put the ideology into action. The doc focuses on that action rather than the pipeline leading people to it, more pressingly covering the violent results rather than the toxic causes.
While Thompson makes some of these connections more specific and clear—noting shared backgrounds and common faces associated with different movements popping up at these big events, eventually leading to the insurrection—it’s a recap of recent history that’s still so raw and evolving as to feel unfinished. The FBI’s Twitter account is still posting images of unidentified insurrectionists, looking to crowdfund justice like they were an American needing surgery. When the film’s final half-hour brings us to the title event, its nauseating on-the-ground footage is the most gripping of the doc, though—again—for those who’ve followed the news, it’s not revelatory. It’s more like biting once again into something rotten, disgusted to find the same fetid decay lingering in our nation’s neglected fridge. It’s horrible, but what did we expect? To learn something?
Some of the film’s more aggravating displays of feigning ignorance in the pursuit of passive objectivity come out in and around these segments. “Have you gotten threats?” Thompson asks Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. She (rightly) laughs in his face. “You should be asking me, ‘How many days a week are you not getting death threats?’”
This kind of thing can bleed through into the filmmaking as well, with visual juxtapositions that can be either facile and/or not really thought through. “Today, four people are dead,” Thompson says, setting up the aftermath of the insurrection over shots of the Peace Monument’s Grief weeping aside History. This statue honors those that died in the Civil War defending the Union from people very much like the four insurrectionists mentioned in voiceover. The doc’s editing can cut off or overwhelm interview subjects—watching Thompson take notes doesn’t necessarily underline specific phrases like the doc might hope it does.
Thankfully, the film does give its viewers some respect: It’s taken for granted that the former president was an unhinged leader that was responsible, at the very least, for catalyzing this white nationalist violence and bringing it and its rhetoric more fully into the American mainstream. So why can’t it also be taken for granted that gun fetishization and discriminatory hate are baked into the country’s DNA? And that, in order to address this, fundamental changes must be made?
Instead, the film’s final point is that these hate groups have, effectively, no ideology besides entitled hate: These attacks represent coalitions of militias, libertarian separatists, hardcore racists and those pathetic Bois/Boys/Lads seeking solidarity in something as nebulous and arbitrary as defiance. It’s not quite as hopeless as The Washington Post looking into where the (95% white) insurrectionists hailed from and finding out, surprise, they came from places where white supremacy was being threatened. But, even with a bit more depth, American Insurrection still ultimately feels like a rehashing of connected facts and demographics that anyone that’s been paying attention already knows and fears.
Director: Rick Rowley
Writer: Rick Rowley
Release Date: April 13, 2021 (PBS, YouTube)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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