Review: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Joe Winston’s documentary is maddeningly generic and without a central point.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Photo: T.W. Li

Not up to adequately framing the title’s question, let alone answering it, What’s the Matter with Kansas? observes a cross-section of working- and middle-class Jayhawk State residents conducting their personal, political, and religious lives for 90 minutes. Aside from portraying Kansans as overwhelmingly white, rural, fundamentalist-Christian, and the kind of modern “conservatives” who believe the Democratic Party is godlessly “pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, and pro-gun control,” Joe Winston’s documentary is maddeningly generic and without a central point: We know the general worldview and biases of the farmers, teachers, and students on screen, but are given only the vaguest clues of how they got that way, and how a state that was a hotbed of experimental socialism and a base for the Populist Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries turned rock-ribbed Republican.

Loosely based on Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestselling book, the film doesn’t connect the dots between the disconnect of “values” voting for GOP candidates and the resultant economic destruction of the non-wealthy the way the book did. Instead, there’s just a few sequences of Frank hunting for vestiges of flaming-lefty Kansas, attempting to read headstones in a “radical cemetery” or looking at vintage anti-capitalist newspapers in an archive.

A couple of voices, including that of a worn-down farmers’ union president who declares himself “without a party,” raise complaints about the Democrats’ abandonment of working people, but Winston is more interested in cultural signifiers that will make blue-state libs grit their teeth. A Baptist church’s minister distributes voter guides on Sunday and rails against the ACLU; the right-wing activist Barden family journeys to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the house astrophysicist explains that the Earth is a few thousand years old; and the Barden matriarch bleats that Republican losses in the 2006 midterms can be chalked up to the party’s inability “to buy the election ‘cause they don’t have the money.” No wonder What’s the Matter with Kansas? only has about two minutes for a poorly paid Mexican immigrant who drives around an agribusiness complex, pitching dead cows and their offal into dumpsters: Winston judges Palinesque mama grizzlies to be so much more entertaining.

Score: 
 Cast: Angel Dillard, Donn Teske, Brittany Barden, Terry Fox, M.T. Liggett, Thomas Frank  Director: Joe Winston  Distributor: Tallgrass Films  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2009  Buy: Video

Bill Weber

Bill Weber worked as a proofreader, copy editor, and production editor in the advertising and medical communications fields for over 30 years. His writing also appeared in Stylus Magazine.

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