Documentarians Meet the Real People Behind a Media Firestorm

May 17, 2018 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Documentarians Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard picked a hefty, complex, but as it turned out incredibly timely subject to collaborate on. The film ACORN and the Firestorm looks at the downfall of the huge community organizing non-profit ACORN, brought about by right-wing journalists’ covert video sting, and the ensuing media frenzy.

Sam Pollard has made over 50 films, including producing the Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls and HBO’s Emmy-winning When the Levees Broke, both by Spike Lee, directing parts of the groundbreaking series Eyes on the Prize and American Masters films about Marvin Gaye, August Wilson, Zora Neale Hurston and John Ford. Helping him tackle the ACORN story was Reuben Atlas, whose film about sibling jazz musicians Brothers Hypnotic also premiered on Independent Lens (co-produced by Pollard), and who co-directed the wine fraud documentary, Sour Grapes. Reuben also has had jobs as disparate as working at a maximum-security prison, a music law firm, and at Legal Aid. Their combined experiences and talents would come in handy in making ACORN and the Firestorm.

“Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s documentary is informative and often infuriating, deep-diving into the history of the organization, the good they did, the embarrassment of those video tapes, and the deception at their core,” wrote Jason Bailey in FlavorWire. “No matter where one stands on the ideological spectrum, this movie is an excellent bit of documentary history and journalism,” adds Christopher Reed in Hammer to Nail.

This is a complicated and controversial topic that cuts at the heart of our current political divide. Reuben and Sam stopped by to help us unpack it all.

Why did you want to make a film about ACORN and the media frenzy around its downfall?

ACORN and the Firestorm co-director Reuben Atlas
ACORN and the Firestorm co-director Reuben Atlas

Reuben Atlas: Before Breitbart made ACORN a household name, before Sarah Palin teased Obama for his work as a community organizer, I knew the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. My father, after a lifetime of work as Legal Aid lawyer, spent six years writing a book about ACORN. He chose it as his lens to determine the extent his generation of progressive ’60s activists had achieved any long-lasting, meaningful change. He finished writing just as ACORN found itself in the mud of our collective political discourse. When the acronym started showing up in chant-form at Tea Party rallies, as a symbol and proof of all things wrong with Obama and liberalism, a film seemed essential.

ACORN’s story seemed like the perfect allegory to explore the political divide. Consequently, it would end up precisely foreshadowing the political present. These community organizers woke up every day and selflessly worked to make society a little more just. The members joined to clean up parks, to improve their kids’ schools, to seek higher wages, to fight unfair lending practices, and to find their voice amidst the vast political landscape.

The organization’s beauty shined at actions where people, many of them women, mostly of color, some over 60 years old, would lay down in the street to fight for what they believed in.

Turning protests into reform, ACORN’s model represented the best of progressive ideals. Its members sought justice, not hand-outs. They joined, paid dues, and shared in the decision-making with the staff. The core philosophy reiterated the goal of empowering people to help themselves. You can teach a man to fish as the proverb goes, but what happens when polluted water is killing the fish? How do you help a man to organize with other men and women to clean up the river and solve complicated political problems?

“ACORN’s story seemed like the perfect allegory to explore the political divide. Consequently, it would end up precisely foreshadowing the political present.”Of course, like any large organization, ACORN had its own internal issues, hypocrisies, and corruption, but compared to its good work, any wrongdoing seemed infinitesimally small. What other organizations worked as hard to—not just uplift low- and moderate- income families—but also empower them?

ACORN and the Firestorm co-director Sam Pollard
ACORN and the Firestorm co-director Sam Pollard

Implicit in the story are questions about how to approach issues related to poverty. How do we as a society support the most disadvantaged? What happens when an organization starts to actually build power for everyday people? The story also raises questions about the role of the media. Why did these hidden camera videos excite the right wing so immensely? What created the force and ferocity that appeared to wipe out 40 years of activism?

Were the attacks purely a concerted political effort, and was ACORN merely a victim of big league politics, or were more complicated societal forces at play? What part did ACORN and its allies play in its own demise? What criticisms of the organization were legitimate? Did ACORN actually play a role in bloating government spending? Was its activism truly effective?

When I met Hannah Giles, the young woman who along with James O’Keefe, helped to take down ACORN—and she agreed to participate in the film—another exciting layer to the story arose. Hannah seemed likable and well-intentioned, with her heart in the right place. Why would she want to destroy one of the few organizations that truly helped America’s most vulnerable? With her participation, maybe we could reach beyond the choir to tell a story that would speak to audiences of all political stripes.

Hannah Giles, preparing to be interviewed in ACORN and the Firestorm
Hannah Giles, preparing to be interviewed in ACORN and the Firestorm

Sam Pollard, my mentor and collaborator, was also interested in making a film about ACORN, and our vision solidified shortly after Obama’s re-election.

Sam Pollard: Like Reuben, I also wanted to make a film that would celebrate, but also be critical of ACORN’s work. I had come from humble beginnings. My father was a janitor for the city of New York and I watched him and my mom work hard to provide for their children. In the members of ACORN, I saw my parents. I loved the idea of an organization that helped working families fight to raise their wages and increase their quality of life.

ACORN was and is important to this country. The irony of John McCain’s statement during the 2008 debates is that the fabric of democracy exists because of organizations like ACORN.

When people, including the press—MSNBC and FOX News alike—watch this film, I hope it raises their temperature and makes all of them see why we as a society should be careful of rushing to judgment about any organization that is painted as being un-American.Were the attacks purely a concerted political effort, and was ACORN merely a victim of big league politics, or were more complicated societal forces at play? What part did ACORN and its allies play in its own demise?

[Both filmmakers]: We hoped to tell a story that was not etched in history, but that felt present, and character-driven, that would provide a deeper and nuanced sense of the people and the work. We wanted to discover their complexities and the sincerity of their motivations.

Hopefully, our approach will allow viewers the latitude to assess ACORN’s legacy for themselves, and allow them to understand the conflicting elements within American society that motivated ACORN’s founders, members, staff, and opponents.

Our Obama-era vision, though, did not account for the election of Donald Trump, the rise of fake news, and the power that Breitbart Media would hold in the White House. We did not know we would be making a film that spoke so directly to the present moment.

What do you hope people get out of this film?

We hope it inspires community organizers and activists to continue to create meaningful change, but also that it serves as a cautionary tale. We also hope it allows people to question their political allegiances, and gain a more nuanced understanding of ACORN, the work it did, and what exactly led to its downfall.

ACORN Board president, Maude Hurd, standing in cleared lot
ACORN Board president Maude Hurd

What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?

ACORN existed for about 40 years and at its peak, had around half a million members. Trying to balance that history and scope in a single film while also making the film feel present and character-driven was a challenge.

Do you have a particularly favorite scene in ACORN and the Firestorm?

Reuben: I loved meeting Elvira Hurd aka Bon Bon, one of ACORN’s members. She’s in her early 80s but had the energy of a teenager. My favorite moment in the movie is when she says, “I’m not a negotiator, I’m a trench fighter,” and then smiles while getting arrested during a protest, or — what ACORN organizers more aptly call — an action.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Reuben: These are three that inspired ACORN and the Firestorm:

  • The Last to Know, directed by Bonnie Friedman (my mother) and edited by the great, Lora Hays. One of the first films about women and alcoholism, short but groundbreaking, and incredibly intimate.
  • The Perfect Candidate, directed by David Van Taylor and RJ Cutler. Brilliant vérité film about Oliver North’s 1994 Senate race. So relevant today and made over 20 years ago.
  • Why We Fight, directed by Eugene Jarecki. Smart, emotional filmmaking, about a vast topic.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

A feature documentary about a former professional basketball player, a docu-series about the wine world, and a film about songwriting and copyright law

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.