Remember ACORN? Founded in 1970 as a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to supporting low and middle-income Americans in all manner of social issues, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was only dissolved in 2010, but it might as well have been a million years ago. Of course, that acronym hasn’t lost any of its flavor for the millions of people it helped to defend against the likes of predatory lending and unlivable wages, or for any of the right-wing media types who feverishly smeared and entrapped the consortium as part of their efforts to disenfranchise voters and discredit liberal causes.
If all of this feels like ancient history, that’s probably because it went down prior to the Age of Trump, when something like the ACORN scandal might barely crack the evening news. And yet, Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s convincing but unfocused documentary “ACORN and the Firestorm” firmly contextualizes the group’s targeted debasement and eventual downfall as a landmark event of this modern political moment — not the epilogue of the previous era, but rather the prologue of the current one.
Most effective as a spiritual sequel to “Best of Enemies” (in that it explicitly traces how the volume of television can be loud enough to shape the conversation and silence a more collective voice), “ACORN and the Firestorm” tries to broach a lot of different topics during its brief running time — perhaps too many, and few with the depth they demand. As a succinct overview of ACORN’s inception and intended purpose, however, the film cuts right to the heart of the matter.
Guided by the candid voices of CEO Bertha Lewis and founder Wade Rathke (“It’s always easier to beat someone than to build something”), Atlas and Pollard cleanly establish the group’s approach to grassroots organization, and the major role they played in supporting marginalized people across the country. At one point, we hear someone describe ACORN with a phrase that could’ve doubled as their slogan: “They’re angry, they’re patient, and they’re absolutely right.”
There’s no doubt that Atlas and Pollard consider ACORN to be a victim of the ideological shitstorm that eventually crapped out Donald Trump, but their movie never borders on hagiography or propaganda. Rathke’s poor leadership is crucial to the narrative, and it’s not as though Lewis was ever fully able to right the ship — this is nothing if not a portrait of how good intentions can be tainted by raw ambition, of how grassroots success can breed its own kind of institutional failure. Lewis puts it this way: “As we become more visible, we’re going to become more vulnerable.” Emboldened by Obama’s presidency and the hope he represented for America’s marginalized citizens, ACORN sprouted into an oak bigger than it had the roots to support, registering voters at such a rate that GOP candidate John McCain suggested they were “destroying the fabric of democracy.”
And so we arrive at the part of the story when two dilettante conservative muckrakers posed as a prostitute and her pimp in order to shoot undercover video of them soliciting advice from ACORN employees about illegal activities like tax evasion and human trafficking. Is this starting to sound familiar, yet? Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe were a couple of naive twentysomethings who had no way of predicting that their stunt would have such a profound impact on the American discourse, but that doesn’t make them any more sympathetic. Giles’ bubbly claim that she and Andrew Breitbart were “instant friends” is a bright red flag, even before we remember that publishing the deceptively edited videos on Breitbart’s website helped it grow into the hateful alt-right powerhouse that it is today. “Forty years of work called into question by one little video,” Lewis sighs.
Atlas and Pollard are understandably magnetized to the maliciousness of this sabotage, but they never quite figure out how to frame it. Instead of building to the scandal, they overzealously sprinkle it throughout, which dulls its impact and confuses the details. At times, “ACORN and the Firestorm” flirts with the idea of contrasting Lewis and Giles against one another, the hard-working African-American activist a perfect foil for the white preacher’s daughter who only got involved because some troll thought she was hot and slid into her DMs (for clarity: Giles’ dad is less Sunday school than he is an unholy mix between Joel Osteen and Guy Fieri).
While there’s something intrinsically compelling about such a dramatic mismatch between sincerity and insincerity, the parallel tracks never come together in a meaningful way, as Lewis is too much of a leader to cast any meaningful relief on a self-admitted pawn. A potentially resonant scene in which the two women sit down on the steps of a Washington memorial only underlines how little their lives actually inform one another.
That arranged meeting — a virtue of the film’s impressive access — also helps galvanize the impression that Atlas and Pollard have misjudged when to end their film. The ending title cards ensure that even the most casual of viewers appreciate how the ACORN hysteria informed the contemporary media landscape, but those same ending title cards also identify eventual Breitbart chief Steve Bannon as someone who still works in the White House.
Obviously the filmmakers can’t account for the time that elapsed between the documentary’s festival debut and its theatrical run — and it’s not their fault that the Trump administration is chaotic enough to make a day-old newspaper seem hopelessly irrelevant — yet the fact remains that ACORN’s story isn’t over yet. It’s still getting gnarlier and more twisted by the day, running roughshod over our nation’s institutions like a chicken with its head cut off. The organization’s past is remarkable and worth celebrating, but it’s impossible to appreciate the full sweep of ACORN’s legacy without seeing it in the context of the corruption that now stands in its place.
“ACORN and the Firestorm” opens in theaters on April 6th.