The national political conventions are upon us — and they’ll look very different this year, thanks to the pandemic. (The Democratic National Convention, anchored in Milwaukee but mostly online, will be held from August 17 to 20; the GOP counterpart, after some moving around, is slated to happen both online and in Charlotte from August 24 to 27.)
But while some people’s TV screens will be occupied by convention antics for the next few weeks, I’m much more interested in a movie about a very different kind of political convention: One that’s made up entirely of teenagers. For Boys State, documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) traveled to Texas to follow the state’s 2018 summer session of a program called, well, Boys State. (There’s a Girls State program, too.) Administered by the American Legion, Boys State is a gathering of more than a thousand 17-year-old boys who, over the course of one week, form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns. The intent is to learn about and experience firsthand how the American system of government works.
The film is uplifting, funny, thrilling, and revealing. The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to cultivate consensus and win. And their experiences provide both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.
Earlier this year at Sundance, Boys State won the festival’s top documentary prize and broke the record for the highest acquisition price paid for a documentary, with A24 and Apple buying the film for $12 million. And now, Apple subscribers can watch the film on AppleTV+.
Boys State is less of a “political documentary” and more of an exploration of the political process. And personally, I find process-oriented films far more interesting than polemical political documentaries designed to convince you to vote one way or another.
Luckily, almost as soon as lightweight cameras became readily available in the 1960s, documentarians started hauling them onto convention floors and campaign trails. The result is that there are lots of great documentaries (and mockumentaries) about the American political circus, and I couldn’t possibly name them all. But here are a few important and particularly revealing films that give a peek into what’s changed in the American political process since TV and film became part of campaigns in the 1960s — and what hasn’t.
A trailblazing documentary that gave the nation a new view of the political process
The 1960 film Primary wasn’t just illuminating, it was groundbreaking. The film centers on the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in which the two candidates were John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The filmmakers (documentary buffs will recognize the creative team of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, who together went onto make three more films about Kennedy) used new, lighter equipment that allowed them to more easily follow and capture an intimate view of the candidates, their staff, and their supporters, and in so doing they created a foundational work of “direct cinema” that informed decades of political video-based reporting. And they did it all in a time when television and video images were starting to become a major force in political campaigns.