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Getting into Wednesday’s Washington, D.C., premiere of “Tea Party: The Documentary Film” meant walking through a steady rain into the Ronald Reagan building, a sprawling downtown trade and convention center where the economic conservative group FreedomWorks, which helped organize a number of Tea Party protests, had rented a foyer and a sizable auditorium. The stars of the film relaxed and talked with former House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) handed out business cards to a steady stream of well-wishers. All of the guests made their way into the auditorium on the FreedomWorks version of a red carpet — a strip of green astroturf.
“We’re goofing on Hollywood,” said FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, dressed in evening wear alongside his wife Terry. “It was [producer] Luke Livingston’s idea.”
The award show trappings were the only tongue-in-cheek part of the evening. “Tea Party: The Documentary Film” is, according to its stars and filmmakers, an attempt to celebrate — and correct — the history of what Armey called a movement to “fulfill the destiny of this land.” Livingston said he and his volunteers paid for the movie, “maxing out our credit cards,” for a total of around $500,000. Two more members of Congress, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), joined the proceedings to pay tribute to the activists who organized the 9/12 “taxpayer march on Washington,” which drew an estimated 60,000 people to the Capitol to protest the Democrats’ economic agenda. In remarks before the start of the film, Blackburn made a spirited pitch for Tea Partiers to come down to Nashville for February’s national Tea Party Convention.
“When you come to Tennessee,” said Blackburn, “they’ll be sure in telling you — like my husband likes to say — when it comes to taxes, if 10 percent is good enough for God on Sunday, it’s good enough for the government on Monday.”
Price, the sponsor of a resolution paying tribute to the 9/12 march, credited Tea Party activists with giving Republicans “the courage to do what we need to do.” After his short remarks, he asked more than a dozen activists to join him onstage to accept framed copies of the resolution, which has been sponsored by 148 members of the Republican conference but has not come up for a vote.
“It’s not like you haven’t seen one of these before,” Price said, passing off a copy to Armey, “but I don’t think you’ve seen one that truly recognizes freedom and liberty.”
For the activists, makers, and stars of the movie, it was all a bit overwhelming. The movie hadn’t been finished, said director Pritchett Cotten, until three days before the premiere. He and a small group of volunteers spent a month of 17-hour days editing the film with Apple’s Final Cut Pro software, stopping only for Thanksgiving. The finished product elicited many moments of spontaneous applause from the audience, as well as some tears, and a final standing ovation.
“Tea Party: The Documentary Film” is part tribute, part “official” history, and part human interest story. Cotten, who cut his teeth on commercials and corporate training films, has the most success with the human drama.
“I didn’t want to make a policy movie,” said Cotten.
Focusing on six people who participated in the 9/12 march at various levels, the film presents them — and, by extension, all Tea Partiers — as average Americans less concerned with partisanship or economics than with a government that, according to all six of the subjects, “doesn’t listen.”
In the film’s telling, the movement began with anger at President George W. Bush. His voice, announcing the September 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 with warnings of what will happen “if the free market is allowed to work,” is the first sound viewers hear at the start of the movie. Price, the member of Congress featured most often in the film, later argues that Tea Party anger goes back to the March 2008 collapse of BearStearns, and the government’s corresponding rescue package.
From there, the Tea Party movement is portrayed as a natural next step in America’s history of peaceful rebellion against the government. William, a minister and Revolutionary War re-enactor, explains how the movement is in step with the original Boston Tea Party. (The film’s footage depicting colonial America was filmed at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., according to one note in the credits.) Painstakingly, Cotten and his stars make the case against charges of “racism” in the movement, relying on William’s membership in a mostly African-American church and through the testimony of Nate, an African-American activist who is deeply apologetic about his 2008 vote for the Obama-Biden ticket.
“You have to understand how that played with the psyche of a black man or a black woman,” Nate says, “to see the highest seat of power, and it’s held by a black man.” The film shows Nate making the case to black men in Detroit that “black people we never really had a political voice.” He also admits that he stands out in the mostly-white Tea Party crowds of which he’s been a part. There is a “voice in my head,” he says, that tells him one day he’ll be less alone.
The race issue surfaces a few more times in “Tea Party,” most jarringly when a group of doctors, participating in the Sept. 10, 2009 mass lobbying effort in Congress, engage Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in a back-and-forth about health care reform. “It went well until he pulled the race card,” says Dr. Robert Shessell , another one of the film’s subjects, “and said the only reason they did it was to embarrass the first black president.” All of this, argue the filmmakers, is the height of irony. The music played during the march itself, titled “It’s Time to Party,” puts the march into a rich and multi-racial context: “in the spirit of Martin, of Gandhi, of Jesus.”
Another goal of the film is to challenge 10 months of media coverage while subtly deciding who does and does not speak for the movement. The role of FreedomWorks in helping to organize the 9/12 march is fully covered, down to a scene where Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots takes notes and talks on a conference call led by FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe. The closest the film gets to a suspense scene is a real-time account of a bomb threat against FreedomWorks, which occurs while Martin is in the office. “We’re going to come out twice as strong tomorrow,” Kibbe says to cheers from other activists. Notably less present in the movie — although there are images from some of its events — is Americans for Prosperity, the rival group which, unlike FreedomWorks , supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out Wall Street firms. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an avid early endorser of the Tea Parties, does not appear in the film at all. But Livingston said he scrambled to include a shot of a sign reading “Thank You Glenn Beck,” hoping to grab the attention of the talk radio and Fox News star. That moment drew some of the screening’s loudest, rowdiest cheers.
The film, like Price’s resolution, also pushes forward the idea that turnout for the 9/12 march was larger than the media reported. Time lapse footage shows the 9/12 crowd at its maximum size. “The park service said this was the largest event that D.C. has ever had,” argues Jack, one of the organizers that Cotten’s camera followed to Washington. That isn’t true, but the controversial statement is followed quickly by emotional footage of Jack visiting the Vietnam War Memorial with other activists, eyes wet with tears. The film ends with a slow-motion shot of the flags at the World War II memorial. “I need you to stand up for our freedom!” says one of the rally’s African-American speakers. “Patriots! Stand up! Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!”
Inside the Reagan building, there was just as much enthusiasm, and just as much disinterest, with how the media was covering the movement. Armey joked from the stage about “liberal interlopers” in the room who could stick around and learn something. As he introduced Wilson, DeMint used the uproar over Wilson’s “you lie” outburst during President Obama’s joint speech to Congress in September to teach a lesson.
“When I heard this ‘you lie’ comment, the president turned and looked at me and I said ‘Oh no, they think it’s me,’” said DeMint. “The next day when I found it was Joe, I said ‘Oh no, he’s dead meat, they’re gonna get him.’ And a couple days later, I was saying — after he raised a few million dollars off of it — I was saying, ‘why didn’t I say that?” The lesson, he said, was to provide some “passion and anger.”
“The only reason we don’t have national health care right now,” said DeMint to the audience, “is you.”