I have long been a fan of documentaries. But in the last few years, I find myself watching and enjoying them more than ever.
This week as I screened the Showtime documentary “Surge,” I came to better understand one of the primary reasons for why I was watching and enjoying documentaries so much more. They explain, sometimes in as little as 60 minutes, parts of this revolutionary moment in which we are living like almost nothing else in media. They help us connect the dots of the vast societal change taking place in our lives. They offer some clarity amid the chaos.
Journalism used to do a better job of that, especially the top mainstream publications. A handful still do, particularly on Sundays. But the majority of news outlets mainly chase viral online moments rather than try to explain the world to us with in-depth reporting. That can be costly. Books, too, chase the blockbuster, top-of-the-charts, high-concept titles while cutting back on smaller non-fiction works that may not sell as well. Meanwhile, documentaries, which are finding new platforms in the digital world, are filling those informational and cultural voids.
“Surge” looks at the wave of women political candidates in the 2018 mid-term election through the lens of three Congressional races in Illinois, Texas and Indiana. It focuses on three Democratic candidates trying to flip Republican districts. They are Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Jana Lynne Sanchez in Texas, and Liz Watson in Indiana. They are among a record number of women who ran for Congress in 2018.
Wendy Sachs and Hannah Rosenzweig, who directed and produced the film, chose to focus on Democratic candidates trying to turn red districts blue, rather than Democratic candidates taking on the Democratic establishment as another influential documentary, “Knock Down the House,” did in its telling of the 2018 race. That film included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. As powerful a story as “Knock Down the House” tells, I preferred learning in “Surge” about these three lesser-known candidates and getting a concrete, on-the-ground sense of what campaigning for a seat in Congress was like for these newcomers.
Among the first dots that the film deftly connected were Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016, the massive Women’s March the day after his inauguration in 2017 and the record number of candidates in the 2018 race.
The opening montage of images and chorus of voices instantly evoke the deep feelings triggered by these three moments, particularly the wave of women who decided that democracy is far more fragile than many imagined and that if they wanted to be represented they needed to personally do something about it.
“I was so devastated by the election results and so worried about our country,” Sanchez says after the dazzling opening package of images and words. “I didn’t sleep on November 8th, but I sure as hell woke up November 9th. I felt I could do something. I felt I had to do something. I just had to run. I had to do it.”
That is about as perfect a quote as you can find to show viewers the connection between the election of a man who boasted of sexually assaulting women in an infamous “Access Hollywood” interview and women running for office for the first time.
And with those words, we are off and running into the Sanchez campaign in a south Dallas district where no Democrat has won in 36 years.
Liz Watson, an attorney and workers rights advocate, had been involved in government before. The film says that as a labor policy director in Congress, she helped write the $15 an hour minimum wage bill.
But now she’s the candidate, and she is running uphill in Indiana. She takes her young daughter, Lila, with her knocking on doors, reinforcing the message of how voting can influence what little girls can imagine themselves to be.
One of the films most charming and telling moments comes at Watson’s kitchen table where the filmmakers interview mother and daughter. At the end of the conversation, Lila is asked what’s hardest about her mother running for office.
“It’s like I always have something on my mind now,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh my God, what if we don’t win this?'”
Speaking more to Lila than the interviewer, the candidate says, “We want to win. But we talked about this and said we’d make peace with every outcome, right? … And we said it was important that we ran a campaign that was actually based on trying to fight for people … So whatever happens, we did a pretty good thing, right?”
Lila knows this conversation is getting deep, but she isn’t sure how to respond. After a second, she looks up and says, “Medicare for All.”
Lila has not only learned her mother’s campaign slogans, she has also learned to work for votes and imagine herself walking the halls of Congress. That’s another set of dots this documentary skillfully connects: how revolutions happen and cultures are changed.
The film’s most widely known figure is Lauren Underwood, who in winning her Illinois race at age 32 in 2018 became the youngest Black woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.
Underwood, a nurse, endured the roughest treatment of the three when on the eve of the election her opponent questioned her connection to the district and her medical credentials. For the record, she has a Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in public health nursing and health policy from Johns Hopkins University.
Underwood relates it to the same playbook as the racist Republican strategy used in 2016 to question Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
After the attack, the film shows a powerful moment when Underwood is on the campaign trail riding in a car. She holds up her cellphone to show an iconic picture from 1957 of an angry white woman yelling at a Black female student clutching her books as she integrates Little Rock Central High School.
“It just hit me,” Underwood says. “That is what yesterday was … And it’s painful and difficult and unpleasant … It’s like, ‘You don’t belong here. You are an outsider. You couldn’t possibly be who you say you are, because I don’t believe you, and I am an entitled, privileged, white person.'"
One of my favorite moments finds now Rep. Underwood in a congressional hearing questioning Kirstjen Nielsen, then secretary of Homeland Security, about the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Southern border.
“There are a lot of lawyers in this room, and I’m not a lawyer, I’m a nurse,” she says to Nielsen. “Madame Secretary, I want to be very clear about what the family separation policy is doing to children’s mental and physical health. Were you aware that the trauma of family separation is connected to something called toxic stress?”
“I’m not familiar with that term,” Nielsen says.
“OK, were you aware that toxic stress can actually change a child’s brain, because it’s still developing,” Underwood continues.
Nielsen is no match for Underwood.
More dots connected. In that moment, you understand how much diversity and new talent can revive and enrich an institution even one as dysfunctional as Congress.
I don’t know if Underwood is the future of the House of Representatives. But I hope she and some of the other women who decided enough was enough on Election Day 2016 do become the new dominant culture on Capitol Hill and prove the mid-term elections of 2018 were a movement and not just a moment.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.