Getting Down with the 'Boogie Man': A Nonpartisan Look at Lee Atwater
By Taylor Segrest
Regardless of your party affiliation, whether you remember him as the most evil man in America, a great American, or just plain don't remember him at all, Lee Atwater changed your life. The jaunty, blues-loving godfather of modern presidential campaigning paved the way for the Bush Dynasty, pioneered our existing standard for unethical electioneering and mentored Karl Rove.
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story is the timely debut feature from Stefan Forbes that pointedly and comically examines this maestro of manipulation's Icarus-like ascendance and tragic, untimely demise. In so doing, the film invites us into much more: an exploration of the rise of the Right, the forces shaping modern politics, and a humanistic, mirror-like indictment of American repression, power lust and complicity. Without a trace of pandering, Forbes takes us on a riotous journey through the last few decades in search of our collective American soul.
Documentary spoke with Forbes by phone to discuss Boogie Man and Atwater's long shadow over our Machiavellian predicament.
It sounds like your interest in Lee Atwater began a long time ago. Can you talk about the origin of the film?
Stefan Forbes: It started with seeing that iconic moment of him up on stage with Bush Senior [at the 1989 Inaugural Ball], mugging away on the electric guitars, jamming with one of the most amazing line-ups of African-American musicians ever seen. At that time, he was accused of just having masterminded the most abrasive presidential campaign in 150 years, so it was fascinating to me. I wanted to know, "Who is this guy? What's the truth here?"
I was aware back then that something wasn't quite right, but it wasn't until seeing your film that I could revisit it with enough depth to really understand what was going on.
Time and time again, we completely misunderstand what happened in that election, which was, as a lot of people believe, a watershed in our politics. It was really exciting to sift through hundreds of hours of footage that had never been broadcast and enter into a living dialogue with a history that is so significant as we go into this next presidential election.
Talk about your understanding of the Republican view of Atwater's legacy.
Atwater reshaped the Republican Party. They believe that he finished the process that Nixon had started of moving the party away from the rich, old Eastern seaboard elite and making it a Southern party. He brought the so-called "value issues" to the forefront, and the Culture War took over. He proved you could win on this stuff if you made "Liberal" a dirty word, and that you could make it the party of the working man-even though it had been known as the party of the rich-if you could touch people on a deep, emotional level and speak to their resentment of the elite, their fear, or even a strong feeling of patriotism.
He was light years ahead of his Democratic opponents. I don't think they really looked closely enough to understand why he was beating the pants off them. They also don't understand Atwater's unrepentant vision of politics as war. He gave the party its fighting spirit. All the Republicans that I interviewed believe that Democrats are incredibly naïve about what politics are, and they don't apologize for anything Atwater did.
The Republicans believe-and I wholeheartedly concur-that the media spun the idea that Atwater apologized for everything that he'd ever done. And that idea of redemption strikes to the heart of who we are as country, especially in the South. It's a deeply American story: the guy making it up from humble roots to this dizzy, unclouded tower and his fall from grace and his redemption.
So why has it been so hard for the Democrats to learn the lessons of Atwater?
The Democrats had forgotten about the core of emotion in the American soul. That is part of what intrigued me about this story. Lee was a bluesman, preternaturally attuned to the nerve endings of the American voter. As a filmmaker, that fascinated me because I wanted to make a film that reached people's emotions.
It seems that your film is largely about examining processes of demonization. Do you think Atwater or Republicans are too readily demonized as demonizers in order to scapegoat them and get us off the hook for being actively complicit?
You're so right. I thought from the beginning, "Lee's already been demonized in the press. Why make a film about it that does that again?" Many in the press felt that they had been so completely spun by him that their backlash against him was a way of assuaging their own guilty consciences. He didn't do these things because he was evil. He did these things because they worked. If they didn't work on us, he wouldn't have done them. I think it's fascinating in the film when a guy like Ishmael Reed says, "Fear works on us." Maybe there's something in the human soul that is attracted to this kind of darkness and unless we all look at it and take responsibility for it, we can't free ourselves from its grip.
It seems like the primary struggle here was to counteract these dehumanizing forces and rescue the humanity of Lee Atwater so that we can find ourselves in him and examine how we are all a part of this societal problem. How did you aim to do that with Boogie Man?
My goal was to look beyond the twin caricatures of the fun-loving, frat-boy bluesman and the ruthless political assassin. For instance, he was driven, in large part, by a resentment of the Eastern elite-part of it [due to] being lectured to by Northerners on the twin humiliations of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and also because of the way the rest of the country looks down on the South. We're allowed to exercise moral superiority, as if racism isn't a problem throughout our whole country.
If we're at this point in history where the ends justify the means and the means have gotten as dastardly and unethical as possible, how do you think a documentary film might play a role in shifting the country away from such a precarious place?
I'm deeply troubled by the divide in our country and the way the different sides can't even talk about politics anymore, and especially the great silences in our national dialogue about race and class.
I wanted to make a film that was sensitive to the concerns of Southerners, and to Republicans as well. There were many more official people in the Republican Party interviewed than Democrats. I felt like this was their story to tell. I also wanted to make a film that gave both sides a chance to speak.
I believe our role as artists is to examine these silences and wounds in our country, open them up and give them a chance to heal. It's so easy to get sidetracked, partially due to the nature of the media and how they're hard-wired to be susceptible to controversy. The issues themselves are actually a lot more fascinating and people want to talk about them. So I wanted to make a film for those people who are eager to engage in a weighty dialogue with the big American questions.
People keep saying this film is funny, and I don't think you want to do it without humor. Lee was a funny Southern rogue with a finely honed sense of the absurd. It's really gratifying to see people laughing throughout the film. Humor is incredibly healing, especially for these dark conflicts in our nation's soul. As Tom Turnipseed says in the film, "I'm laughin'...but it ain't funny." If we can't laugh as a country, we've lost something valuable.
What political docs or other films influenced you as you were making Boogie Man?
Especially in light of my somewhat foolhardy decision to eschew narration, the music had to guide the viewer's journey through different eras of Lee's life. I re-watched The Gospel at Colonus for inspiration, and also Dogtown and Z-Boys. I like the way Stacy Peralta brings the music way up and rocks out for a moment; that might feel heavy-handed in some films, but it expressed Atwater's in-your-face attitude and his love of the spotlight. We didn't have money for a composer, and I had to write the score myself with my former bandmate Tim Robert. It helped in an unexpected way, by forcing me to make clearer decisions about the emotional tone of each scene.
Knowing much of my audience would come in reviling Atwater as a political assassin, I also studied The Talented Mr. Ripley a great deal. The filmmakers bring you inside Ripley's head, show his personal vulnerabilities and class insecurities, and keep you identifying with him no matter what he does. Empathy is crucial to the experience I hoped to create. Simply blaming Lee Atwater for the ills of our political system makes a one-note movie and absolves the rest of us of any responsibility.
And I always watch Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera every once in a while just to get fired up and remember how much is possible in documentaries.
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story will be released theatrically this fall, followed by a broadcast on the BBC.
Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.