A House committee will release a first-of-its-kind documentary on economic inequality

A House committee will release a first-of-its-kind documentary on economic inequality


A bipartisan House selection committee is set to release a documentary-style film, the first of its kind, about economic inequality in America, a modern historical record of three uniquely American stories members hope burst the political and partisan bubble around the issue by Washington.

Speaker Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) in June 2020 to head the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Growth Equity, launched a new approach to the committee’s traditionally established mission, promising not only to anchor the committee’s work outside of Washington, but also to create a more enduring and impactful work product than another waning congressional report.

“I really wanted to focus not just on producing a sterile report, but on spreading American stories in a very important way, in service of understanding and moving away from stereotypical thinking and in service of reducing polarization,” Himes told The Washington Post in an interview.

The 30-minute documentary, titled “Grit & Grace: The Fight for the American Dream,” is the first-ever House production and will premiere Dec. 13 at the National Archives as part of a center-focused on-the-ground hearing. on storytelling and the American Dream.

The setting is reminiscent of another federally funded artistic endeavor that shaped Himes and the committee’s process.

During the presidency of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roy Stryker was hired to lead a photographic unit within a government agency called the Farm Security Administration. Stryker’s mandate was to improve public perception of government assistance by documenting the work of the US government to help poor farmers and their families. But with the help of a legendary cast of photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, Stryker’s unit produced evocative – and at times controversial – portraits that captured Americans’ complicated relationship with the federal government. . The result was a treasure trove of some of the most iconic and defining photographs of the Great Depression.

Inspired in particular by the historic work of Evans, who became best known for his New Deal-era photos of rural Appalachia, the documentary was born out of Himes’ desire to go “beyond a conversation statistics and politics that often reduce Americans to stereotypes” and to “show America to itself”.

To do this, Himes had to look outside the halls of the Capitol. He entrusted the development and production of the film to Eric Harris, a member of the executive committee, who, over four months, interviewed nearly 150 people across the country. Harris, the project’s co-creator and lead producer, tapped Emmy-winning PBS Frontline producer Oscar Guerra to direct it. Guerra, Harris and a crew then pare down the story to highlight three vignettes of Americans with radically divergent experiences and views with the American dream.

The crew included: Jeremy Cook, a small business owner living in Augusta, W.Va., who cares for his two adult sons with non-verbal autism; Alicia Villaneuva, a Mexican immigrant based in Hayward, Calif., who started a business making and selling tamales; and Joseph Graham Jr., a single father in Concord, North Carolina, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees later in life.

“This is definitely not an advertisement for the quality of American government,” Harris said. “But it underscores the opportunities – and perhaps even the exceptionalism – that this country had to ultimately provide opportunities for all three families in unique situations.”

The three stories are woven together by a surprising narrator: actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

Despite Parker’s on-screen propensity for $1,000 shoes in the familiar role of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City”, Parker grew up poor and on welfare, and described her participation in the documentary as personal.

“As someone who grew up in a family that experienced economic hardship firsthand, this was a unique opportunity to share stories of dignity and strength, spotlighting hard-working people across our country in their pursuit of the American dream,” Parker said in a statement. “In this age of deep division, the need for empathy among Americans could not be greater. I see this film as a vehicle for the kind of compassion and mutual understanding that is lacking in this polarized time.

The release of the documentary marks an unprecedented departure from the traditional exit of Capitol Hill lawmakers.

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol has been hailed for holding a series of highly produced, visual hearings over the summer to present its findings . But Himes’s select committee short is perhaps even more of an experimental approach to communicating with the American public.

“Congress is getting a little smarter about how to communicate with the American people,” said Himes, who added that the committee, which is tasked with developing solutions to wealth inequality, aiming to make the documentary accessible to as many people as possible – a feat from a post-insurgency institution that has been marred by bitter political polarization.

When Stryker was interviewed at the end of his life to commemorate his legacy as director of the Farm Security Administration’s photography unit, he predicted that disastrous political forces would prevent anyone from replicating the sprawling mission to document again. difficulties across the country.

“I think to go out there and try to get a photography project like Farm Security again…you’re going to have to overcome some pretty dire situations politically,” Stryker said. “I don’t think you can.”

Even on a smaller scale, Himes, along with his committee counterpart, Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), has struggled at times with some of the challenges of operating in a deeply polarized system, Himes said.

That meant making the film appealing to both Fox News and MSNBC viewers, according to Himes and Harris. Lawmakers on the committee who participated in the draft span the ideological spectrum, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y), Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Kat Cammack (R-Fla.).

“Listening to the American people is something Congress needs to do more often. I am proud that our committee was able to do just that,” Steil said in a statement. “From field hearings to interviews with working Americans, President Himes and I have worked hard to make sure we hear from ordinary working families across the country, not just vested interests in Washington, D.C., who are still in the room.”

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