The new age of climate activism

    CLIMATE / Four young women of colour take the fight for a Green New Deal to Congress.

    Selected for this year’s CPH:DOX F:act Award competition, To the End, is Rachel Lears’ Sundance-premiering followup to her (also Sundance-premiering) 2019 doc Knock Down The House, which tagged along on the Sisyphean political campaigns of four loud and proudly progressive women during the 2018 US Democratic primaries. Unfortunately, only one of those system-dismantling hopefuls won. Fortunately, the winner was a charismatic Bronx bartender by the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The latter now takes her place both in Congress and as one of To the End‘s fierce foursome.

    To the End, a film by Rachel Lears
    To the End, a film by Rachel Lears

    The new faces of climate

    However, AOC is the elder stateswoman to three even politically greener (no pun intended) climate activists this time around. There’s Varshini Prakash, the Massachusetts-born executive director of the Sunrise Movement#; Alexandra Rojas, a Connecticut native and the executive director of Justice Democrats (and familiar CNN talking head); and Rhiana Gunn-Wright of the Roosevelt Institute, a Chicagoan (and former intern for Michelle Obama#) who co-authored the Green New Deal policy document.

    And like AOC, these dedicated women also happen to be unequivocally BIPOC – with varying views amongst themselves. When the issue of veganism comes up, Gunn-Wright, the only Black face to be featured, quips, «White people can give up meat – my people have given up enough». Yet Gunn-Wright may also be the most astute tactician – having walked and studied the halls of power since her Rhodes Scholar days. «As long as there are people that you can poison without consequence, there will always be a loophole that the fossil fuel industry can exploit», she points out, emphasizing that climate justice cannot be separated from racial justice. «There are some savvy motherfuckers. And they’re not gonna just sit back and wait for us to take apart their industry».

    …climate justice cannot be separated from racial justice.

    Political relaities

    Indeed, AOC is the first to concur that DC’s environment is one of insidious intimidation – more so than overt lobbying. The fossil fuel corporations run on sticks, not carrots. This makes the messaging war absolutely crucial since all the establishment cares about is winning. Or, as the (nonwhite male) communications director of Justice Democrats shrewdly puts it, «As long as you can make your ideas winning ideas, they will become the dominant ideas in the room because they don’t really have ideas».

    Counterintuitively compelling, To The End actually spends blessedly little time on the protest frontlines and more inside run-of-the-mill meetings – or, in the immortal words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, «the room where it happens». This renders the film less often character study than PowerPoint presentation on effective strategizing. Well, mostly. With the help of Rojas and Justice Democrats, South Texas’s Jessica Cisneros gives establishment candidate Henry Cuellar a run for his DNC money, though ultimately loses. That said, Missourian Cori Bush of Knock Down the House is now Congresswoman Cori Bush. And Cisneros is herself back in the news even as I type – having forced Cuellar into a runoff this current election cycle. (Though that may have less to do with any grand strategy than with the recent FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign office. Which may or may not have to do with some rumoured business dealings in Azerbaijan. In other words, politics as usual.)

    In the end, To the End plays as lefty comfort food – a popcorn movie for the Bernie Bros. (The CPH:DOX synopsis does include the phrase «with the help of Bernie Sanders#» after all.) AOC meets with Oglala tribe members about the Keystone XL pipeline, saying that the struggle for climate justice is not about «switching to solar panels» but a spiritual fight. Images of tired old white folks in DC are juxtaposed with fresh-faced BIPOC. Expertly manipulative music heightens a scene in which smartphone-wielding Sunrisers storm a parking garage in order to confront Senator Joe Manchin (behind the wheel of his Maserati, naturally). Needless to say, it’s a riveting bit of theatrics, but a performance nonetheless. These youngsters aren’t going to change Manchin’s mind because, frankly, he doesn’t give a damn. And between the Big Coal money (Manchin founded the coal brokerage Enersystems back in the 90s) and the MAGA state he represents (nearly 70% of West Virginians voted for Trump in the 2020 election), frankly, he doesn’t have to. He knows they’ll be using the footage for their own propaganda purposes – as will he. And yet the power of the narrative is the only power these hopeful change-makers have got. (Gotta knock down the house somehow.)

    Not to mention hope is one heck of a weapon (just ask our first Black president). And Lears herself seems genuinely inspired by her idealistic characters – which inevitably translates to the screen. Enthusiasm, of course, is contagious. Sure, To the End may be a film that preaches to (and perhaps only reaches) the progressive choir – but what’s wrong with that? In a world facing an existential climate crisis, the choir needs preaching to, if only to simply keep the faith.

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    Lauren Wissot
    Lauren Wissot
    A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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