'ACORN and the Firestorm': Film Review

A useful bit of history that arrives an election or two too late.
4/6/2018

Sam Pollard and Reuben Atlas portray the activist group brought down by a dishonest "sting" and its own mistakes.

How many lifetimes have passed since the right wing made a villain out of the community-activist organization known as ACORN? The name may still have rage-stoking power in some quarters, its Viagra-like appeal surpassed only by proper nouns like "Benghazi." But for most Americans, facing the crises of 2018, a documentary about the group and its spectacular demise has limited (albeit real) value. In ACORN and the Firestorm, directors Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard offer a second draft of this chapter in progressives' history, showing how much more there was to ACORN than America saw in those infamous 2009 sting videos; but in the emphasis it places on this particular train wreck, it offers something less than the definitive portrait that might let other would-be organizers learn from what the group got right and wrong.

The doc opens with an unlikely interviewee who immediately challenges some of the racist ideas surrounding the group: We meet a burly white man who is proud both of his Confederate flag ("heritage, not hate") and his support of ACORN, a group founded to help the little guy.

Digging back to its roots, the doc finds ACORN founder Wade Rathke, whose focus was on trying to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. In its first decades, the group distinguished itself from other charities by not assuming it knew best: Volunteers canvassed poor neighborhoods, collecting ideas from those who lived there about which problems were most pressing and how they might be solved. As one woman recalls of her first encounter, "ACORN was different — they asked me." Accordingly, the group embraced a "coordinated autonomy" strategy in which local chapters set their own priorities.

Later, this strategy would be a sticking point, as Rathke grew impatient with the pace of change and sought other means to grow membership. But the film offers a lengthy look at battles ACORN fought and won for working people on issues such as the minimum wage. Bertha Lewis, who would become ACORN's CEO, remembers her beginnings as a volunteer, when she and others weren't afraid of fistfighting with drug dealers as they tried to improve conditions in housing projects.

Parallel to this account, Pollard and Atlas are offering glimpses of the colorful events — the undercover videos in which two privileged kids pretended to be a prostitute and her pimp — that represent most of what the public knows about ACORN. The film spends a great deal of time with Hannah Giles, the daughter of a Florida megachurch preacher, who hatched the sting notion and pitched it to James O'Keefe after he told her she was cute on social media. The directors are as attentive to her backstory as to Lewis' (they stage a frustrating meeting between the two at the end), sitting down with her alpha-conservative dad: Doug Giles wanted her to be "a leader amongst the schleps" and is proud of having raised "warrior chicks" with weapons training. If only he'd been able to teach Hannah about journalistic ethics as well.

Viewers will likely learn a thing or two about the sting videos and their aftermath and may marvel at the cynicism shown these days by Giles, who thinks of herself as a journalist and doesn't vote in elections. But the more interesting parts of the story follow less sensational failings in the organization, where an individual's wrongdoing can spiral out into broader damage; and the doc's poignant heart is in observing how ACORN's most dedicated members have pushed to continue doing good after it was forced to close its doors.

Directors-screenwriters-producers: Reuben Atlas, Sam Pollard
Directors of photography: Frank Larson, Spencer Chumbley, Natalie Kingston, Nati Gamez
Editors: Paul Greenhouse, Francisco Bello
Composer: Khari Mateen

84 minutes