'While I Breathe, I Hope': Film Review

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A relevant character profile that needs more character.
8/17/2019

Emily Harrold's informative doc profiles Bakari Sellers, the youngest person ever elected to the South Carolina legislature.

The last time an African American was elected to statewide office in South Carolina was in 1879. In 2014, CNN pundit, lawyer and former South Carolina state congressman Bakari Sellers set out to change that by running for lieutenant governor in his home state. In the documentary While I Breathe, I Hope, director Emily Harrold gives viewers a front row seat to dozens of stump speeches on the campaign trail with Sellers, who, as a Democrat in a red state, is the quintessential underdog. The film has been making the rounds on the festival circuit (DOC NYC Festival) and opens in limited theatrical release in New York City on August 17.

Harrold smartly grounds the film in one of its most compelling storylines: that both Sellers and his father, longtime Civil Rights activist Cleveland Sellers, have direct experience with racially motivated massacres. In February of 1968, South Carolina highway patrol officers killed three black male protestors and injured two dozen more on the campus of South Carolina State, including Sellers’ father. In the opening scene of the doc, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre, and Sellers gives a speech about its legacy at the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial, named for the three slain protestors. Later in 2015, when Sellers’ friend and fellow state congressman Clementa C. Pinckney and eight others are murdered at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, Sellers laments the similarities between the two massacres despite the 50-year difference.

Harrold wants this to be a personal story, not just an extended campaign commercial, and she has a compelling subject. Sellers embodies a kind of childlike optimism that feels earnest; he bursts into tears on a number of occasions while giving speeches. During a campaign event to court white voters, he abruptly confesses he doesn’t feel well and has to sit down while a handful of audience members scurry to his aid. He holds hands with his wife, Ellen Rucker Sellers, as they leave another campaign stop.

The film’s visuals are what you’d expect, a potpourri of low-angle shots that make Sellers look larger than life and close-ups on his impassioned facial expressions. The interview backdrops often feel happenstance — one looks like they plopped down in a hotel lobby and pressed record. The edit feels disjointed at times, too, as Sellers speaks both direct-to-camera and cross-camera with no apparent pattern to the sequencing.

In the arena of presidential electoral politics, it's practically required that candidates put out a fluff-filled memoir about their beliefs, but if recent documentary features are any indication, feel-good profiles are shaping up to become campaign set pieces too. These docs include David Modigliani’s Running with Beto, Rachel Lear’s Sundance hit Knock Down the House featuring Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other female first-timers running for office, Norah Shapiro’s inspiring Time for Ilhan on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and the indie doc Councilwoman from Margo Guernsey, about a hotel maid who gets elected to city council in Providence, Rhode Island.

In these documentaries, a politician’s usual stuffiness takes a backseat in an attempt to reveal an authentic and relateable human being. Unfortunately Sellers’ attempts to unmask himself feel labored and rehearsed when compared to the effortless authenticity of Ocasio-Cortez or the punk-rocker-turned-cool-dad persona of O’Rourke. There are few surprising moments in While I Hope, I Breathe, and many familiar platitudes.

We do learn some interesting facts about Sellers’ story though: At age 22 he ousted a 26-year incumbent to become the youngest elected official ever to win a seat in the South Carolina legislature, his DUI charge was leaked via a video of a highway stop that went viral around the state and he hired Republican political consultants to work on his Democratic lieutenant governor campaign.

While I Breathe, I Hope — the South Carolina state motto translates from the Latin dum spiro spero — is also a window into the national influence of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and even the 2020 presidential election. A recent New York Times article points out: “While black voters are expected to account for about 20 percent of the Democratic Party electorate nationwide, they can play an outsize role because of their early influence in South Carolina and their recent history of coalescing around one candidate.”

Without trying to, the film’s visuals make this exceedingly clear. At the fish fries and committee meetings where Sellers glad hands voters and in campaign staff meetings, it’s often Black women who cheer Sellers on. African Americans, and specifically African American women, are the lifeblood of not only his campaign, but of the South Carolina Democratic Party in a deeply conservative state that overwhelmingly elects white Republicans.

Sellers is certainly documentary-worthy, but unfortunately this film keeps the audience too much at a distance to thoroughly endear us to the human being who, as President Barack Obama says in the film, is an “up-and-comer” with an impressive political future not only behind him, but ahead of him too.

Cast: Bakari Sellers, Cleveland Sellers, Ellen Rucker Sellers, Ike Williams Jr.

Director: Emily Harrold

Producers: Xuan Vu, Diane Robertson, Lauren Franklin

Executive producers: Charlamagne Tha God, Marco Williams, Jedd Canty, Karen Kinney

Cinematography: Kelly Creedon, Alexander Hufschmid, Kyle Kelley

Editor: Xuan Vu

Music: Eric Andrew Kuhn

72 minutes