I chatted recently with director Joe Winston about the film (which will have its Chicago premiere in September.) He shared with me his story of an urban liberal who decided to embed himself in red-state Kansas... and the lessons he learned along the way.
In 2004, when America was hurtling toward the successful re-election of George W. Bush, Winston went to a book reading in Chicago to see three authors read selections from their books. He went specifically to see Studs Terkel and Howard Dean, but came away from the event absolutely fascinated with what the third author, Thomas Frank, had to say.
Frank was reading from his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? - which looks at a key red state to determine why the working-class has turned away from liberal populism to embrace conservative ideology.
So what is Kansas? When I think of Kansas, I think of Frank Baum and Dorothy's adventure in Oz and the MGM musical with Judy Garland.
In The Wizard of Oz, one of the most iconographic American movies ever made, Kansas is a land bleached of all color and beauty - the place Dorothy initially yearns to leave, a place full of toil and hardship - and then, of course, as the film progresses, Kansas represents the place she longs to return to.
In a 1965 New Yorker excerpt of his true-crime book, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote defined Kansas as a place where "the land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them."
The towns in Kansas are a different thing altogether. Here Capote describes Holcomb, the scene of a brutal murder:
"Down by the depot, the postmistress, a gaunt woman who wears a rawhide jacket and denims and cowboy boots, presides over a falling-apart post office. The depot itself, with its peeling sulphur-colored paint, is equally melancholy; the Chief, the Super-Chief, the El Capitan go by every day, but these celebrated expresses never pause there. No passenger trains do—only an occasional freight. Up on the highway, there are two filling stations, one of which doubles as a meagrely supplied grocery store, while the other does extra duty as a cafe—Hartman’s Cafe, where Mrs. Hartman, the proprietress, dispenses sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and 3.2 beer. (Holcomb, like all the rest of Kansas, is “dry.”)
"And that, really, is all."
That really is all to Kansas - unless you live in Kansas, and the place that appears colorless and drab to outsiders is your home.
"Kansas is a place we think we already know," said Joe Winston. "The heart of average middle America. Completely normal."
However, Kansas, as Frank points out in his book, is a state with a radical history.
A state that once had a market for socialist newspapers. A state where John Brown, the violent abolitionist, participated in the massacre of pro-slavery settlers in 1856. A state, where, nearly a century after John Brown, the important legal precedent that paved the way for integrated education was set by the Supreme Court in the Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education case.
Today, we're not in that radical Kansas any more because it has been radicalized in a different direction - to the far right.
"When I went to the book reading in 2004, this was a time when the conservative movement seemed ascendant," said Winston. "Tom Frank had a very coherent notion of what was happening. And you had to go to Kansas to understand what was happening in America."
So that's what Joe Winston did - with his soon-to-be wife, Laura Cohen as his partner in the project - they optioned Frank's book and went to Kansas with a camera in hand.
"In our everyday lives, we get into our own political bubbles. We tend to talk with people who think like we do," said Winston. "Thomas Frank in his book painted a vivid picture of working class conservatives, who were willing to follow the conservative economic program because the liberals pissed them off. We went to Kansas to immerse ourselves in the conservative movement."
Joe and Laura, two liberal Chicagoans, made 11 trips to Kansas over a period of two years to document the story. For Winston, becoming embedded in Kansas as he followed three families around to learn their stories, was fascinating.
"Kansas is very different from Chicago," said Winston. "These are evangelical Christians - I had never met anyone like any of these people. They didn't try to proselytize us - they just wanted to explain their views. Everyone we met in Kansas was extremely friendly, very hospitable toward us. It was a pleasure to learn just how easy it was to relate to them."
And he learned some other unexpected lessons.
"I got a much better sense of why Kansas conservatives think they way they think. To them, it looks like the Democratic party and big city liberals are not their friends."
But as Frank notes in his book, this is a group of people who have lost ground in the last two decades because of conservative economic policies. Middle class salaries have stagnated while prices have risen. Unemployment is on the rise. The cost of college at a private university is nearly equal the median salary in the United States - roughly $50,000.
"The people we met in Kansas are being badly served by government," said Winston. "No matter who is in power in Washington, people in Kansas and other places like that have been sliding toward oblivion for a long time. These are people whose way of life is disappearing - and they fear that their children will not be able to enjoy the same standard of living they experience today.
"Certainly, I felt for these people. I felt I understood where the activists from the religious right are coming from. That was completely foreign to me before."
Abortion is a key issue in the conservative movement, and for several decades, Kansas has been an important battleground in the war over abortion. Just recently, a Wichita doctor, George Tiller, who provided abortion services at his clinic, was murdered by a pro-life activist on his way to pick up goat's milk.
Winston's plunge into the heartland of America gave him an understanding of why abortion became such a hot issue.
"I struggled for a long time about the pro-life activists," said Winston. "There are a lot of single-issue voters focused on the apocalyptic nature of abortion. To me, it seemed that abortion became so important because it can be painted in such vivid terms as the massacre of the helpless.
"In Kansas, I saw a lot of people who felt powerless taking on abortion as something they could do to make the world a better place. Liberals underestimate the appeal that some of the right-wing populist causes have for these people - they offer a way for them to make a difference," Winston said.
In a world where retirement portfolios and jobs seem to vanish with the wind, a cause to believe in and work toward takes on greater importance. And in a country that seems increasingly segregated into red and blue blocks, we are fed news from a segregated mediascape as well. In this environment, people tend to hear only what they want to hear.
By making this film, Joe Winston, a self-described urban liberal, left his liberal comfort zone to go to Kansas, to make the effort to listen to what the conservatives had to say. He found striking kindness in Kansas - and in attempting to learn "what's the matter with Kansas," he realized that in order to find common ground, you have to take people who do not agree with you just as seriously as those who do.
So if you live in NYC and want a glimpse of the red-state world, check out What's the Matter with Kansas on August 6th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. There is no narration in What's the Matter with Kansas, the filmmakers decided to let the subjects speak for themselves. I have not seen the film myself and look forward to the Chicago premiere this fall.
Afterwards, Joe and Laura will host a panel discussion on “The Future of Conservatism: A debate” with Joe Conason of the NY Observer, Kathryn Lopez of the National Review, Chris Suellentrop of the NY Times, and Ryan Sager, author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.” Frances Fox Piven of CUNY will moderate.
For more info on the film and the filmmakers, check out the film's website.
Salon's review of the film.
Here's a preview of the film...