Movie Review: What’s The Matter With Kansas?

What's The Matter With Kansas - A Film By Joe Winston and Laura Cohen

Yes, there is a movie version of the book by Thomas Frank. The film What’s The Matter With Kansas is inspired by, but not guided by the book.

At the outset, the film presents a broad spectrum of Kansans; there’s the former Republican farmer who fights for small farmers and against global warming, the migrant workers from Mexico who come to Kansas hoping to earn a better life in the slaughterhouses and the shadows. Also featured is non-conformist artist M.T. Liggett whose sculptures offer something to piss off all sides of the aisle. Wisely, director Joe Winston allows the subjects to narrate their own lives.

There are, of course, fundamentalist Christians in the film. Winston’s camera is allowed to follow them into their homes and churches. What we see is a fusing of politics and religion that when combined with a kind of self-imposed isolation creates an “us against the world” orthodoxy. At a point later in the film, that works against some of the folk we meet.

Any disgust at the myopic view of the Christian folk herein is replaced by a sense of sadness at the desperation that these Americans seem to feel about the loss of a safe, simple concept of the country. The threat is largely reduced to gay marriage and abortion, especially as personified by Dr. George Tiller, who is seen and mentioned in the film. Tiller was the only Kansas doctor who performed abortions in the state. He was gunned down in church earlier this year.

Thomas Frank, a Kansan himself, makes cameos throughout the film. A journey back to his home state produces an eye-opening segment of the film with a local historian exploring the state’s radically independent, liberal, and even socialist origins. The extent to which these values were mainstream, almost seems stunning to Frank, who says at some point later, “Liberalism has to gets back to its roots or it’s never going to get anywhere.”

What Winston and producer Laura Cohen provide in the film, along with some stunningly beautiful cinematography of Kansas’ plains and vistas, is an unobstructed view of what turned this state with a fiercely independent lineage into an ideological safe haven for the political-Christian right.

Check out the trailer here.

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