“I really wanted to make a point of not just producing a sterile report, but disseminating American stories on a large scale, in the service of understanding and breaking stereotypes, and in the service of reducing polarization,” Himes told the Washington Post in an interview.
The 30-minute documentary, titled Grit & Grace: The Fight for the American Dream, is the first-ever documentary produced in-house and will premiere December 13 at the National Archives during an on-site hearing focused on storytelling stands American Dream.
The frame evokes another federally funded artistic endeavor that shaped Himes and the committee’s process.
During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, Roy Stryker was assigned to head a photographic unit within a government agency called the Farm Security Administration. Stryker’s mission was to improve public awareness of federal aid by documenting the US government’s work to help poor farmers and their families. But with the help of a legendary troupe of photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks, Stryker’s unit produced powerful — and sometimes controversial — portraits that captured Americans’ complicated relationship with the federal government. The result was a treasure trove of some of the most iconic and formative photographs of the Great Depression.
Inspired in particular by the seminal work of Evans, best known for his New Deal-era photographs of rural Appalachian Mountains, the documentary grew out of Hime’s desire to go beyond “a statistical, policy-oriented conversation that often reduces Americans to stereotypes.” . to “show America herself”.
To do this, Himes had to look outside the halls of the Capitol. He entrusted the film’s development and production to Executive Committee staff member Eric Harris, who interviewed nearly 150 people across the country over the course of four months. Harris, the project’s co-creator and executive producer, brought in Emmy-winning PBS Frontline producer Oscar Guerra to direct. Guerra, Harris and a team then narrowed the story to highlight three vignettes by Americans with dramatically different experiences and perspectives on the American Dream.
The crew consists of: Jeremy Cook, a small business owner living in Augusta, W.Va. who cares for his two adult sons with nonverbal autism; Alicia Villaneuva, a Mexican immigrant from Hayward, California, who started a business making and selling tamales; and Joseph Graham Jr., a single father in Concord, NC, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees later in life.
“This is certainly not an advertisement for how great the American government is,” Harris said. “But it underscores the opportunities — and maybe even the uniqueness — that this country had in ultimately providing opportunities for all three families in unique situations.”
The three stories are woven together by a surprising narrator: actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
Despite Parker’s fondness for $1,000 shoes in the well-known role of Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City,” Parker grew up poor and on welfare and described her participation in the documentary as personal.
“As someone who grew up in a family that experienced economic hardship firsthand, this was a unique opportunity to share stories of dignity and strength, and to shed light on hard-working people across our country who are living the American Dream pursue,” Parker said in a statement. “In this era of deep division, the need for empathy among Americans could not be more important. I see this film as a vehicle for the kind of compassion and mutual understanding that is lacking in these polarized times.”
The documentary’s release marks an unprecedented break with the traditional performance of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The House Special Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol has been announced for conducting a series of visual and highly-produced hearings over the summer to present its findings. But the short film by Himes’ select committee is perhaps even more of an experimental approach to communicating with the American public.
“Congress is getting a little smarter when it comes to how it communicates with the American people,” Himes said, adding that the committee is tasked with developing solutions to wealth inequality to make the documentary accessible to as many people as possible — no small feat by a post-insurgency institution marred by bitter political polarization.
When Stryker was interviewed at the end of his life to commemorate his legacy as director of the Farm Security Administration’s photo division, he predicted that terrible political forces would prevent anyone from ever repeating the sprawling mission of documenting hardship across the country .
“I think to go there and try to get another photographic project like Farm Security … you’d have to get out of some pretty bad situations politically,” Stryker said. “I don’t think you could.”
Even on a smaller scale, Himes, along with his colleague on the committee, senior member Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), has at times struggled to navigate some of the challenges that come with working in a highly polarized system, he said himes
That, according to Himes and Harris, meant making the film appealing to both Fox News and MSNBC viewers. Lawmakers who serve on the committee and participated in the project span the ideological spectrum, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y), Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), and Kat Cammack (R Fla.).
“Listening to the American people is something Congress needs to do more often. I’m proud that our committee managed to do just that,” Steil said in a statement. “From field hearings to interviews with American workers, Chairman Himes and I have worked hard to make sure we are heard by ordinary working class families across the country, not just the Washington, DC pressure groups that are always in the room.”