I Am an American: The Making of an Anthem (Lott, 2009)

Kenny Gamble and Patti Labelle

It is perhaps a coincidence that I screened I Am an American: The Making of an Anthem the same week I read this post from the Slacktivist blog deriding a member of the Dallas Tea Party claiming that president Barack Obama “does not love” America and that “I don’t know if I’ve ever hear him say anything good about America.”It’s not really my intention to dissect the Tea Party rhetoric–Slacktivist does that just fine. What I will say about the juxtaposition of these two snapshots from our culture is that they were a powerful reminder to me of how quickly stereotypes get formed in a mass media age and how easy it is in a short attention span world to fall into the trap of accepting that cultural dividing lines of the present are permanent and long standing.

More specifically, the documentary got me thinking about how, exactly, the right wing of the Republican party and the voices it represents have somehow managed through sheer jackhammer repetitiveness to frame ideological and social differences as determinative of patriotism. One of the most irritating things to me about contemporary political rhetoric is the constant attempts to demonize difference–to suggest that those who think differently about race, or class, or civil rights or civil unions are somehow not “real” Americans. (Remember Sarah Palin’s speech to the white audience in which she said she was glad after campaigning in some more heavily contested areas to be back in “the real America”?)

I would say then that one of the values of “I Am an American” and its attendant documentary is to show black and white together espousing and celebrating patriotism through song and honoring the influences in their lives who have helped to instill that patriotism in them. In fact, I will say it. Whether that example–that witness as we might call it in the evangelical community–will be heeded is something I’m less optimistic about. I suppose anyone who who can hear our president say “Yes, we can!” and think he is a secret Muslim out to destroy America could probably hear Patti Labelle sing “If you are proud to be an American / Let the world know” and be equally cynical.

That’s my own cynicism talking, though, and it shouldn’t be reflected back onto the song or the documentary. Any connections made between ideological dividing lines of the moment and what sort of cultural work the song is doing don’t really appear to be something that producer Kenny Gamble or the members of the Temple University Symphony Orchestra are trying to communicate. Gamble is persistent in his address to the choir in saying that his hope is that the anthem would be uplifting. It is a song of hope, not defiance.

Father Divine

In charting his own interest in the song, Gamble mentions the influence of Father Divine in spirit, and the film is a useful introduction to Divine. The documentary would be useful for no other reason than to give young people an opportunity to see archival footage of Divine speaking and to hear interviews from those who heard and believed in his message. Here again, I suspect that cynics might accuse the film of glossing over the more controversial elements of Divine’s ministry or teachings, but I don’t think Gamble is trying to endorse this man doctrinally so much as to credit his influence in a narrow area–that of espousing Americanism. There was certainly enough mix of the political and the religious in the snippet we got of Divine’s message to make me uncomfortable, but in that, too, there is a lesson: America and what it stands shouldn’t be co-opted by the left any more than the right. And if one is willing to disagree with someone on the left and still value his patriotism as sincere and laudable, so, too, ought one to strive to accept the possibility that patriotism from those on the right can be sincere even when it gets combined with ideological or social agendas to which one feels strongly opposed.

As a “making of” video, I Am an American feels a bit more like a marketing infomercial than a probing documentary. Many of the people involved get to talk, but we only see the song coming together in a technical sense. Unlike with  some more probing documentaries about artists (Shut Up and Sing! comes to mind), I Am an American does not give viewers much insight into the creative process beyond the sound bite. That’s okay, though. One gets the sense that Gamble wouldn’t want to deflect attention from the anthem. Perhaps he didn’t feel the need to say a lot about himself or his creative process. Perhaps he just wanted to say something good about America.

 

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