The Organizer

Wade Rathke, the community and labor activist who founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Little Rock in 1970, is the subject of Nick Taylor’s documentary The Organizer, which is screening for free Saturday.
Wade Rathke, the community and labor activist who founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Little Rock in 1970, is the subject of Nick Taylor’s documentary The Organizer, which is screening for free Saturday.

At 2017's Tribeca Film Festival I made a point of seeing ACORN and the Firestorm, a documentary directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard about the rise and fall of the grassroots community "committed to social and economic justice."

Since ACORN had it roots in Arkansas it seemed likely that the film would sooner or later be screened locally, presenting us with an occasion to publish a review and/or a piece on the filmmakers. But for some reason -- at least as far as I know -- that movie never made it to Arkansas.

The Organizer

87 Cast: Documentary, with Wade Rathke, Johnnie Pugh, Beth Butler, Gary Delgado, Frances Fox Piven, Dan Cantor, Maude Hurd, with archival footage of Gloria Wilson, Saul Alinsky, William F. Buckley

Director: Nick Taylor

Rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

It's an interesting piece that clearly lays out the reasons the unabashedly liberal ACORN -- the acronym stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- folded in 2010 after coming under a series of attacks. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) railed against the group in the 2008 presidential campaign, accusing it of voter registration fraud. Then a conservative provocateur, James O' Keefe, secretly recorded videos that suggested ACORN's employees were willing to break the law by abetting an over-the-top pimp (a costumed O'Keefe) and his best girl, who gamed the system by tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution.

While most of the allegations against the organization were wildly overblown -- O'Keefe creatively edited the videos to give the impression that some ACORN employees were complicit when in fact they immediately reported the suspicious conversations to the authorities, and he falsely implied he appeared in ACORN's offices in garish attire when in fact he was dressed in conservative business garb.

Yet, despite being one of the seminal figures in the modern fake news cycle, O'Keefe somehow retains some credibility in some wishful quarters, while ACORN is reduced to running Little Rock's community radio station KABF. However noble your cause, trying to secure "power for the powerless" is by definition a risky enterprise. If you want to know about the fall of ACORN, Firestorm is a valuable resource.

Now a different ACORN documentary with a slightly different focus has made it to Arkansas. The Organizer, written and directed by Nick Taylor (2015's Al Purdy Was Here), is, as its title suggests, primarily a portrait of the founder and chief engine of the group, Eagle Scout and Vietnam veteran Wade Rathke, who started ACORN in Little Rock in 1970.

Rathke's vision was to build a multi-issue organization to empower poor people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Starting with a handful of lower-income families, ACORN eventually expanded to more than 100 cities across the United States with more than 500,000 members.

Rathke continued as ACORN's chief organizer from its founding until June 2, 2008, when he stepped down in the wake of a financial scandal involving his brother. From his home in New Orleans, he continues to organize for the group's surviving international arm while managing community radio stations in New Orleans and Mississippi as well as KABF.

After opening with a barrage of sound bites that convey the politically polarizing nature of ACORN and posit Rathke as the pre-eminent community organizer of his time, the film shifts briefly to a crisis in Honduras before presenting clips from a 1939 film on the roots of community organizing, and offers academic talking heads like Frances Fox Piven, Dan Cantor, Noam Chomsky -- and Marshall Ganz, who insists "community organizing has been around since the Exodus."

But Rathke's ACORN took a more combative stance than traditional social work, "a fighting model" inspired by Saul Alinsky), before picking up Rathke's story in the late 1960s. Alinsky appears in archival Firing Line footage engaged with William F. Buckley who says he "desperately" wants to understand Alinsky's worldview.

"The theory of meritocracy in this country doesn't have anything to do with the reality of how this country actually works," Rathke says, even though his personal success seems to belie the statement. The Organizer makes clear that many of the gains he made were directly attributable to Rathke's talent and personal charisma.

Taylor has a wonderful way of weaving together archival footage with contemporary interviews and snatches of Rathke's casual daily interactions as he drives about the South in a battered old SUV. If the documentary occasionally veers close to hagiography, even staunch opponents of Rathke's politics are likely to concede his authentic concern for the poor. It's an impressive testament to an impressive figure.

MovieStyle on 05/11/2018

Upcoming Events