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Dwayne Booth, aka Mr. Fish, is part of a dying breed of cutting-edge, no-holds-barred editorial cartoonists. His work is brazen in style, explicit in language and image, and frequently offensive. It’s also extremely funny to those not offended. More importantly, it is protected by the First Amendment of our nation’s Bill of Rights. Thanks to Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End, the documentary debut of Pablo Bryant, we get to know the man and his cartoons in great depth.
Still, in a world where drawing pictures can lead to death threats and assassinations, as we saw when the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked, taking a principled stand for one’s art and beliefs can be dangerous. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Fish, the artist, there is no question that Dwayne Booth, the man, is possessed of no small amount of bravery (and impish delight in pissing people off), speaking truth to power, a necessary part of any healthy democracy. As Dwayne says, “Take away the right to say f*** and you take away the right to say ‘f*** the government’.” (asterisks mine, not his)
Of course, “no man is an island entire of itself” (thank you, John Donne), especially one who has trouble earning money for his work, and so a big reason why Dwayne can be Mr. Fish is because of his wife, Diana Day. She’s a teacher, and it’s her salary (and heath insurance) that allows the family (with twin daughters) to survive. Diana is supportive of her husband, but far too practical to sit back and not directly address their frequently precarious financial situation.
Indeed, if the film has a weakness, it’s that, intentionally or not, it casts Diana in the role of the reluctant heavy, pushing Dwayne to take a job designing signage at a local Whole Foods to earn a more reliable paycheck. Needless to say, he is not happy there. But who can blame her? Bills must be paid, and fewer and fewer outlets – whether in print or online – choose to publish uncensored cartoons like Mr. Fish’s.
But otherwise, they have a loving marriage, and watching them together – and watching Dwayne with his daughters – is one of the joys of the movie. The other is the sheer delight of the cartoons, themselves. And if you find some of them profane or bloody, like his anti-war efforts, Dwayne asks us to consider what is more obscene, war or cartoons? If you answer the latter, this film is not for you (nor, in my opinion, is democracy). Beyond his art, Dwayne is a committed progressive: he, Diana and the kids spend their Thanksgiving delivering food to those in need. He does not seek to shock for shock’s own sake, but to wake us up to the profound truths and inequities of this world.
Though we never see any direct actions taken against Dwayne (or his family), he tells us of menacing hate mail (I wish the film did not show us exactly where he lives, then). So far, the repercussions of an uncompromising vision are just his difficulty finding gainful employment. Still, he is not without options, as we see, and the future is not all bleak. I, for one, now that I am familiar with Mr. Fish’s work, plan to support it in whatever ways I can afford (and you can, too). We need more outspoken activists like him, not less, however annoying or impractical they may be. They keep us honest. As does this movie.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)