Plumbing the Depths of 'America's Heart and Soul'

On the afternoon of my Independence Day vacation, I sat in an empty movie theatre watching America's Heart and Soul, a new pseudo-documentary from Walt Disney Pictures, that portrays the extraordinary lives of "ordinary" Americans. After reading a half-dozen reviews that presented the movie as a "patriotic" counterpoint to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about for myself.

While I was prepared for a blatant whitewash of America's complex cultural tableau, I was nearly shaken out of my seat by what I witnessed: a right-wing anti-government commercial insidiously cloaked in a "Morning in America" aesthetic that is calculated to deceive the viewer into believing that George W. Bush's "era of personal responsibility" has been enthusiastically ushered in – and that it's working.

America's Heart and Soul opens with a portrait of rugged individualism unfettered by government tyranny. It's "Roudy" Roudebush, the gruff cowboy from Telluride, Colorado, who loves his freedom and rides a horse that trusts him. As the camera zooms out for a shot of Roudy galloping across the Continental Divide to a score of lilting strings, he explains in a voice-over what makes him free: "There's not a lot of government out here."

Roudy is followed by George Woodard, a quirky Vermont dairy farmer who milks cows day and night with his son by his side. In a non-sequitur remark, Woodard says that the best thing about working with your son is that "you don't need any daycare." After him comes the Appalachian rug-weaver who explains that even though she's always been broke, "Poverty is not a word to a true Appalachian." And then there's the California vintner who loves his job so much he says he doesn't need a retirement plan.

These folks are the true bearers of America's Heart and Soul, the movie suggests, and if you send your kids to a federally-funded daycare program, if you enjoy recreation on federal land, if you'd like to have your Social Security when you retire, or if you believe that the nation has a responsibility to end poverty, then you're not really free.
Never mind that over 50% of the land in the Colorado Plateau where Raudy lives is federally managed; forget that Woodard enjoys massive subsidies thanks to the congressionally-administered Northeast Dairy Compact while Vermont's child-care programs are chronically underfunded; and ignore the fact that the vintner is so wealthy he can afford to hire cheap migrant labor (shown in a quick montage) to toil in his fields while he matures like a fine wine. To be free in this Disneyfied America, you must also be free from doubt.

Only one segment of America's Heart and Soul features people openly discussing their problems in political terms. They're workers in a Pennsylvania steel town that's been devastated by outsourcing. "We've been to Washington and every time, our pleas fall on deaf ears," says a union leader. However, to the delight of the steelworkers in electoral swing states like Pennsylvania, Bush agreed to levy steel tariffs against foreign competitors in 2002. Then right after the Republicans swept to victory in the mid-term elections, Bush quietly rescinded them.

The movie omits this important piece of context, leaving the viewer in the dark about just who in Washington received the steelworkers with deaf ears. To viewers who don't follow politics, the steel town's problems might as well be the fault of those pointy-headed elitists Bush is always complaining about.

Of the countless omissions in America's Heart and Soul, those that recast its few liberal characters as lovable eccentrics entirely harmless to Republican ideals are perhaps the most monstrous. For instance, Rev. Cecil Williams of San Francisco's Glide Church is filmed welcoming the homeless into his church and feeding and clothing them. Yet there is no mention of Williams' longtime affiliation with radicals like Angela Davis or his 30-year legacy as an advocate for gay rights, which has earned him the poisonous wrath of the Christian Right. The way Williams is portrayed, he's just another compassionate pastor doing the good work of Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Similarly, Ben & Jerry's CEO Ben Cohen appears as a zany businessman out to whip up a good batch of ice cream and make a whole lot of money; never mind that he's chairman of the Progressive Business Alliance, a liberal lobbying group working to oust Bush.

Without knowledge of Cohen's activist background, it's possible to imagine that this sweet-toothed capitalist took down a pint of Cherry Garcia to celebrate the windfall he reaped from the Bush tax cuts.
While Cohen gets lost in a dizzying scattershot of entrepreneur profiles, the sanitized Williams still manages to distinguish himself from the crowd. After all, he is the only black character in America's Heart and Soul who is not a musician or an athlete and the only minority character not seemingly lifted from the white imagination. Take Mosie Burks, an aging gospel singer from an unnamed part of Missippippi who, before breaking into a rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, tells the camera that she praises God every time someone gives her chicken and bread. Is her worldview not affected by living in the Jim Crow south? What happened in her town when the civil rights struggle roiled Mississippi in 1950's and 1960's? The movie doesn't say, casting Burks as a complacent Dixieland stereotype. Then there's Michael Bennett, the ex-con who had such a meaningful experience in prison that he emerged to become the captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Is the movie saying that prison is a useful tool for rehabilitating wayward black men? Apparently, yes.

And where do Latinos fit into America's Heart and Soul? Though this remarkably variegated and vibrant ethnic group is reshaping America's social fabric in a way no immigrants have before, the only glimpse the movie gives into Latino life is a segment about a group of hot-blooded salseros of unknown national origin who live to shake their hips to merengue music. There has to be something about their immigrant experience that makes them uniquely American. But all the viewer gets is one dancer's platitude about how salsa is "like love, passion, sexual." Like the rest of the minorities in America's Heart and Soul, these dancers have been unwittingly cast in a brown and black minstrel show not unlike the spectacle of faux diversity that dominated the 2000 Republican Convention and what is certain be a major theme this August in Madison Square Garden.

Given the Republican ideas insiduously propagated by America's Heart and Soul, it's not surprising Disney has turned to a group of right-wing operatives to help market the movie. On June 28th, just weeks after the announcement about dropping Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 for open political reasons, Disney coordinated and promoted a screening of America's Heart and Soul with MoveAmericaForward, a California-based Republican lobbying front that had organized a letter writing campaign to prevent theaters from showing Fahrenheit 9/11. Only days before the screening, MoveAmericaForward's chairman, Howard Kaloogian, a failed GOP senatorial candidate and former anti-immigrant backbencher in the California assembly, called Fahrenheit 9/11 a recruiting tool for Hezbollah. His reaction to America's Heart and Soul was markedly different: "It's a very patriotic movie," he told The New York Times.

And yet, despite marketing help from Republican operatives, America's Heart and Soul is a colossal flop. Compared to Fahrenheit 9/11, which generated record box office sales nearing $50 million in its first week, America's Heart and Soul grossed a piddling $131,000 on its opening weekend. For a movie that preaches success as the ultimate American virtue, its failure is a rebuke. Indeed, like the neoconservative hawk who eluded military service or the moralizing fundamentalist who sleeps with hookers, America's Heart and Soul is unable to live up to its own lofty standards.

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