In the last days of a painfully divisive election season, activist and CNN contributor Van Jones and D.C. filmmaker brothers Brandon and Lance Kramer teamed up to do the unthinkable: Head to a battleground state and listen to Trump supporters.
The Messy Truth, a three-part short documentary series co-produced by the Kramer brothers’ D.C.-based Meridian Hill Pictures and Jones’ Magic Labs Media follows Van Jones as he talks with a family, four friends, and a group of voters in Pennsylvania — days before the state went for Trump.
So we approached [Magic Labs Media] ... and shared our desire not just to knock on doors, but to try to dive into the center of this toxicity and provide something that was missing — very simply, to be empathetic.
That was the upside for me — I felt so grateful that we’d taken the proactive step to make this happen. It also made me very sad. There was a kind of personal pain that I felt in the room, and certainly in the time after the day we filmed, and I’ve particularly been feeling it this week — I just felt terrible that it was so late. Sparks of catharsis were happening in the room, and it just felt like, Why hasn’t this been happening? Why is this so late to the game?
Brandon: When we first arrived at Kim’s home, featured in the first episode, there was one gentleman who was a friend of Kim’s. Right before Van and our camera and sound people arrived, he asked me if I could step outside. And he said, “Look, I looked up Van Jones last night and I was watching a lot of his clips and his interviews and you know, this is somebody who is very liberal — and I’m wondering, are you guys here to bring someone big from CNN into the home of Trump supporters to basically ridicule them and make them look like evil people? Am I about to witness that happening?”
The expectation of us is that we’re coming in to do a gotcha piece, because that’s the norm for this kind of storytelling. When the conversation got started, there was a lot of fear and concern about that being why we were there — and because there was literally almost no other examples that we could point to of civility! We couldn’t come in there and say, No, no, we’re doing it the way this was done, because there was no one doing that.
So when that guy pulled me out, that was confirmation that I was doing the exact right thing. It took us forever to find a family of Trump supporters that would even let us into their home, because people were so concerned about being vilified. The fact that it took us weeks to even find a family that was OK sharing their opinions about why they’re voting for this person that is now the next president of the United States — that’s crazy! People don’t even feel comfortable sharing their views on that, because the climate is that toxic? It’s really scary when people are that anxious about sharing honest perspectives with other people sitting in the same room.
Sojourners: Have you heard from that family or other you spoke with after filming went public? What have their responses been?
Brandon: Yes. We released the first episode and it went very far, very fast. Van is used to being on camera and being seen by millions of people. The family was not. And they were willing to have a very, very difficult conversation. To us — to Van and Lance and I — that was an act of courage that deserved recognition and respect, even though there was very strong disagreements in how they felt.
Some people were just sort of using our video as a way to yell at Trump supporters. And — a minority, but this did happen — used the comments sections to personally attack the family members. So the family reached out to me, and said, you know, “I thought you were creating this to build bridges, to have an open and empathetic space, not to have our family attacked like this.” And they were right.
Van took that responsibility very seriously. So he created a Facebook Live post where he basically was like, “Look, here’s why we did this project, disagree but don’t be a jerk about it.” He created rules: It’s OK to disagree, and you should, and he does, but he asks people, “If you’re going to criticize, say one thing positive about them participating in the project.” The family really appreciated that follow through.
If you yell at people just for participating and being vulnerable, no one else wants to be vulnerable. If some feel personally attacked for wanting to have an honest conversation, no one else is going to want to have an honest conversation.
We’ve never taken an overt step into the middle of a political arena, let alone this one, and for us it’s been an enormous learning curve — if you're trying to do something with integrity and empathy amidst one of the most polarizing moments in our country’s history, you’ve got to fight for that.
Sojourners: Will you all continue telling stories in the same way, or is this your only venture into the political realm and you might just want to venture back out again?
Brandon: This has always been our approach to storytelling. ...What I feel compelled to fight for is that we, as documentary filmmakers — instead of building further walls and fortifying — take different groups of people and explore that messy middle and try through storytelling rebuild some sense of common ground. [Election Day] didn’t change the direction of Meridian Hill Pictures. But it kind of put into bold what we were already doing and cemented the work that needs to be done.
Lance: Elections are one component of democracy, but elections are not the democracy. They’re a piece of it. To us, democracy happens every day, and in many ways it should happen through every single way that you relate with people. Every interaction should be influenced by democracy. If we live in a country with free speech, that has an affect on how I relate with people throughout my day.
I think we’re feeling this responsibility as storytellers — in these days between elections, we’re helping to contribute to that day-by-day democracy around how your community works and how are other people experiencing this country. That is something that may be under threat, and I think it may be up to independent storytellers to keep that alive.
We’re part of a community of people who are using cameras and pens and microphones to explore our differences — and I think that’s what keeps our differences from being explored by knives and bombs and all these other forms of destruction. What you’re doing with a publication, what we're doing with film, it’s all part of the same effort.
That’s where you see democracy at work, and that’s really what we’re rededicating ourselves to.