At a moment when it seems that America’s socio-political fabric is poised to unravel, a new documentary film seeks to remind Americans of the common threads that bind them together.
Premiering Tuesday on PBS, “American Creed,” is a multifaceted look at American democratic values, and how people who care about them are trying to preserve and promulgate them. The film will stream on PBS.org and the PBS app on February 28, launching a multi-year, multi-partner national public engagement campaign.
Written, directed and produced by San Francisco Jewish filmmaker Sam Ball, the film’s touchstone is an ongoing conversation between Stanford University professors Condoleeza Rice and David M. Kennedy. Rice is a political scientist and Republican, who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Democrat, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt expert.
Despite their political differences, Rice and Kennedy came together out of a shared concern about the quality of discourse in the United States in recent years.
“We’re coming apart. Our institutions don’t work. Our political system is so polarized,” Rice says in the film.
Ball was struck by this non-partisan partnership, with both thinkers jointly focused on the fragility of American democratic values and ideals, and the urgency to make a concerted effort to keep them alive.
These issues predate Trump
Ball, who co- founded the Citizen Film not-for-profit company in 2002 after receiving a Joshua Venture Fellowship for Jewish social entrepreneurship, began filming the Stanford professors in dialogue around four years ago.
“Some of the footage we used in the film was shot pre-Trump. These issues predate Trump,” Ball emphasized.
The angels of America
Challenged with making a film about ideas, Ball knew he had to create a narrative arc to engage viewers on an emotional level. Scenes of Rice and Kennedy discussing American values with their students around a seminar table would not suffice.
Ball decided to bring in Kennedy and Rice’s personal family background stories, as well as a cast of nine other characters, whose own stories each expand in different ways on the main themes of “American Creed.”
Some of these people are famous, and some are not. Regardless, they all echo Rice and Kennedy’s assertions that the essence of being American is the mythic belief that with hard work, you can make life better for you and your children, and that as you achieve success, it is your duty to help others do the same. (Of course, how exactly one does this is where political differences come in.)
Joe Maddon, manager of the Major League Baseball’s 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs, lives his American ideals by establishing youth programs integrating new immigrants and combatting anti-immigrant sentiment in his economically depressed hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Educator Diedre Prevett, a Muscogee (Creek Indian) Native American from Tiger Flats, Oklahoma, embodies the power of education to lift individuals out of poverty. A school principal, she is utterly devoted to her students, many of whom are the children of economic migrants who stay only for a couple of months.
Acclaimed author Junot Díaz recounts his personal story of immigrating as a boy from the Dominican Republic and growing up in a diverse inner-city New Jersey neighborhood. He believes the spotlight should be shined on society’s margins. Only by looking “at this country’s farthest edges — the places where we rarely turn our eye — can we get a better sense of what our real values are and what they need to be,” Díaz says.
Military service is represented by Sgt. Tegan Griffith of Wisconsin, who is a leader of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. A former Marine, Griffith focuses on the non-partisan aspect of military service and speaks of her pride in defending Americans’ free speech rights.
Eric Liu, former speechwriter for president Bill Clinton and founder of Citizen University, works creatively and tirelessly to promote civic engagement. After visiting his parents’ home country of China, where he witnessed the repression of political dissidents, he decided to devote himself to fighting civic apathy in the US.
Successful San Francisco tech entrepreneur Leila Janah speaks about equal opportunity, and candidly, about how having money is critical to participating in American society. She teams up with Terrence Davenport, a social entrepreneur in Dumas, a struggling, tiny town on the Arkansas Delta. Janah, founder of Samasource, a social enterprise that helps people in other countries lift themselves out of poverty through digital work, partnered with Davenport to create a similar program in Dumas.
A final piece of the film portrays an unlikely friendship between Joan Blades, co-founder of the progressive advocacy organizaton MoveOn.org, and Mark Meckler, co-founder if the Tea Party Patriots, and president of Citizens For Self-Governance. By engaging in respectful dialogue through the Living Room Conversations program, these grassroots organizers discover they have more in common with one another than they expect.
What is America’s creed?
Deep-rooted problems in American society like racism, xenophobia and economic disparity make appearances in “American Creed,” but overall, the various narratives present an overwhelmingly positive picture.
“In the marketplace of documentaries there are a lot of films that are ‘hand wringers’ — films that argue that we have a terrible problem and try to get people to do something about it,” Ball said.
“That’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to do a version of the best angels of American society. We wanted to showcase these foundational ideals that in every generation we have adopted to move toward a better, more just society,” he said.
The film’s title hints at the sense of realism that Ball tries to nonetheless convey. “American Creed” is a phrase from “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” a 1944 study of race relations in the US by Swedish Nobel-laureate economist Gunnar Myrdal.
Myrdal detailed the many obstacles to full participation in American society faced at the time by African Americans. He concluded that democracy would eventually win out over racism. Myrdal identified an “American Creed” emphasizing ideals of individualism, civil liberties, and equality of opportunity that would hold the country together.
“Our intention with the film was to present idealism without shying away from obstacles. It’s about how to counter these obstacles. It’s hard not to be pessimistic right now, but we can’t afford to wallow in pessimism,” Ball said.
Ball, 48, said his own civics education was weak as he grew up in Western Massachusetts. The curricular requirements were minimal and were limited to the technical workings of government.
“The missing piece was democratic culture, which is what this film is about. No democratic society can function without the culture that goes with democratic institutions,” Ball said.
It’s a culture that Ball said resonates strongly for American Jews. Universal access to opportunity — the notion that it doesn’t matter where you come from in order to achieve your dreams — has been available to Jews in the US more than in any other Diaspora country.
Among the various partnership initiatives associated with “American Creed” is a curriculum created by Facing History and Ourselves specifically for Jewish schools.
The political affiliation of the people appearing in “American Creed” is never mentioned, and is completely beside the point. Fully aware of the battle lines that are constantly being drawn along party lines, Ball aimed to take an alternative stance.
“Instead of the shallow punches and counterpunches taken all the time in the media and on social media, this is about taking a step back and having a conversation about our foundational ideals,” Ball said.