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Jenny Beth Martin didn't set out to become a movie star. Yet Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Center amphitheatre, the mom from Georgia was a celebrity at the big-screen premiere of a new film that features a cast of thousands.
Wait -- better make that "hundreds of thousands."
Martin is one of several activists featured in Tea Party: The Documentary Film, which tells the story of how a movement that began in February with a few hundred people showing up at scattered protests culminated in September's massive taxpayer march on Washington.
It's "really weird" to be called a movie star, Martin said at a post-premiere reception she attended along with several of her fellow stars, including Dr. Fred Shessel and Revolutionary War re-enactor William Temple.
"I'm in this because I care about my country," explained Martin, who is national coordinator of the online organizing group Tea Party Patriots.
Although the documentary (directed by Pritchett Cotton) uses Martin as one of a half-dozen featured "characters" to carry the narrative arc of the story, the true stars of the film are the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out to wave homemade signs and cheer speakers at Tea Party rallies all over the country during 2009.
The amazing growth of the movement is highlighted by one of Martin's earliest on-screen appearances, showing her speaking at a Feb. 27 event in Atlanta, where a small crowd turned out on a cold rainy Friday. Martin subsequently explains that she was one of about 20 organizers on a Feb. 20 conference call that led to that first round of Tea Party gatherings, which followed commodities analyst Rick Santelli's now-famous Feb. 19 rant on the CNBC network.
As the film makes clear, however, Santelli's call for a Tea Party protest tapped into a deep vein of discontent that started growing among grassroots conservatives during the Bush administration. The documentary begins with audio of a Dec. 19, 2008, speech by President Bush advocating a bailout for the auto industry: "If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy and liquidation for the automakers."
Indeed, although some have characterized the Tea Party movement as motivated entirely by partisan GOP opposition to President Obama, it was Obama's Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who took the lead in advocating passage of the Wall Street bailout in September 2008.
Pushing back against media misrepresentations that have portrayed Tea Party protests as potentially dangerous expressions of ignorant populist rage, the movie carefully recounts the motives and methods of the movement. Early in the film, Martin describes her organization's basic principles: "We want fiscal responsibility. We want constitutionally limited government." Nor, contrary to media stereotypes, are the Tea Party people a dimwitted rabble of uncultured yahoos. In addition to being a Revolutionary War re-enactor, Temple is an artist who describes the research that goes into his historically themed paintings.
The Left's frequent insinuation that racism motivates the movement is rebutted not only by the numerous faces and voices of black Tea Party participants -- including one of the featured activists, a young man identified only by his first name, Nate -- but also by Temple. One of the movie's more powerful sequences shows Temple being confronted by a black minister who staged a counter-protest at a rally. At that point, Temple reveals that he is "a white pastor of a black church" -- Maranatha Baptist, where he is shown leading a service. Temple then explains his Bible-inspired concept of brotherhood and says that if the Tea Party movement was racist, he wouldn't be involved.
Many of the same critics who depict Tea Party rallies as gatherings of hateful troglodytes will simultaneously -- and without evident irony -- claim that the rally attendees are part of an essentially phony P.R. campaign funded and orchestrated by powerful GOP fat cats. The movie features House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that the protesters are "not really a grassroots movement. It's Astroturf."
That claim was thrown back in Pelosi's face at the 9/12 March on D.C. The movie captures the moment when, facing a crowd estimated at upwards of 500,000, FreedomWorks organizer Brendan Steinhauser announced from the stage, "I understand Nancy Pelosi is out of town, but Madam Speaker, if you're watching on TV, we just replaced the grass on the Mall with Astroturf."
There is nothing secretive about the Tea Party involvement of groups like FreedomWorks, which sponsored the D.C. movie premiere. But FreedomWorks president Dick Armey says his organization's role has been primarily one of supporting the efforts of volunteers. "Everything about the whole Tea Party movement … is pretty much ad hoc, really," Armey said Wednesday night.
Despite what critics might say, participants in both the movement and the movie are convinced that their activism has made a difference. One of the scenes that drew applause at Wednesday's premiere screening showed Martin inciting the huge Sept. 12 rally at the Capitol.
"We were not loud enough in February … in April … in July," Martin said, and then yelled for the benefit of Congress and the president: "Can you hear us now?"
That brought a thunderous cheer from the crowd. The echoes are still being felt in Washington.