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(The 2017 AFI Docs ran June 14-18 in Washington D.C. Lead critic Chris Reed brings us these reviews fresh from the fest.)

Remember ACORN? The acronym stands for “Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.” Founded in 1970, and dissolved in 2010, the group, over its 40-year history, took as its mission the empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised whose political voices went unheard, alone, yet formed a considerable force when unified. ACORN worked on the same principle as unions, believing that collectives are more powerful than individuals. Like unions, ACORN earned the wrath of conservatives in the United States, who saw its organizational know-how as a major threat to the existing power structure. Which it was. With the victory of Obama in 2008, propelled by the new coalition of progressives, voters of color, and young voters (these groups are by no means mutually exclusive), helped in part by massive voter-organization efforts (led in many places by ACORN), the Republicans’ response to their defeat, after some initial hand-wringing and calls for a bigger tent, was to discredit both that coalition and the registration efforts that brought more voters to the polls. Target #1? ACORN.

ACORN and the Firestorm, a new documentary from co-directors Reuben Atlas (Brothers Hypnotic) and Samuel D. Pollard (Two Trains Runnin’) brings us the often sordid tale of the takedown of this once-proud-and-successful agency. Some of it – most of it, if your political beliefs run that way – was of ACORN’s own doing, since rapid growth after initial legislative victories in the 1980s led to a system that was too decentralized for its own good, without enough oversight over local branches. But even universally good management would have struggled to overcome the attacks on ACORN post-2008, exemplified by the undercover pimp/prostitute duo of James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. Their videos, posted online, purported to show employees of ACORN doing everything they could to help the two set up brothels, even ones with underage women. Horror! Indeed. However, a subsequent investigation, discussed in this film (including the courtroom depositions), revealed that O’Keefe had – shocker! – altered the reality of the situation through his editing. If there is a filmmaker out there surprised that such things are possible, well, perhaps this field is not for you…

Irrespective of subsequent absolution (of a sort), the damage was done, and O’Keefe’s work, coupled with some unfortunate voter-registration irregularities by low-level workers, led the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress of the time to defund ACORN, which shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy. No matter where one stands on the ideological spectrum, this movie is an excellent bit of documentary history and journalism. Though the filmmakers wear their own pro-ACORN political heart on their sleeves, they include many different points of view, and do not spare ACORN’s management. The list of great talking-head interviews within goes on and on: Wade Rathke, founder of ACORN; Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s last CEO; Hannah Giles, the “prostitute”; Iowa Representative Steve King, one of ACORN’s principal enemies; journalist John Atlas (and father of co-director Reuben); and many more. Perhaps my favorite character of all, however, is Travis, a lifelong conservative Republican and working-class resident of Orlando, Florida (with a Confederate flag in his yard), who credits ACORN for helping him keep his house in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He, almost more than anyone, reminds of what ACORN stood for – helping those who could not help themselves – and what was lost when it disappeared. As our current President would tweet, SAD!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)


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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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