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Film review: ‘What Is Democracy?,’ dir. Astra Taylor

A philosophy major’s dream come true

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Astra Taylor’s insightful documentary tackles a larger-than-life question: “What is Democracy?” The film, which is playing at the Northwest Film Forum until this Sunday, March 24, dives into issues like Black Lives Matter and voting rights while weaving in the ideologies of historic philosophers and successfully framing current political issues in the context of a global history of democracy.

“Nothing beautiful without struggle,” is the Plato quote that the film opens with. “Plato’s Republic” is used as an anchor throughout the film, with evocative quotes opening each new chapter. Taylor herself walks us through ancient Athens, explaining the birth of democracy. Local tour guides show the filmmaker famous landmarks, all the while illustrating how ancient societies first invented the democratic system.

Not long after the tour around Athens, we are transported to Raleigh, North Carolina, and dumped in the middle of a Trump Rally. These jarring transitions are routine throughout the film — the viewer is carried from ancient Greece to modern-day Italy to a Miami beach, all the while receiving snapshots of “democratic experiments.”

Perhaps most refreshing about the film is its honest look at historical democracies. The documentary is more than a candy-coated History Channel account of ancient societies. Taylor’s tour guides pull no punches in calling out Athens as a slave-based democracy. American activists, ex-cons, and political theorists in the movie all point out that democracy continues to exclude marginalized groups. Viewers are left thinking critically about whether democracy has ever truly existed at all.

While the structure of the film is disconnected at times, it’s also full of absolute gems in terms of interviewees. For example, Cornel West, a philosopher with a long history of civil rights activism, walks us through the ideologies of Plato and Rousseau. Wendy Brown, a renowned political theorist, shows up later to pick apart the etymology of “democracy.”

The film draws in an American audience by touching on political hot topics — Black Lives Matter, voting rights, and the cycle of poverty are all intertwined into the story. Angela Davis even makes an appearance, explaining how slavery was never truly abolished in the United States.

The documentary loses some of its momentum in its depiction of modern-day Greece. Taylor drops the audience into an incredibly nuanced political situation, assuming that they have a firm understanding of the Greek economic crisis. Perhaps this is just a film better suited for political science majors, but it’s difficult to understand how the Greek government-debt crisis has anything to do with Black Lives Matter.

At this point, the film becomes frustrating, as it introduces countless interesting topics, but pulls the viewer away before they can dive too deep. However, it becomes apparent that this is part of the film’s intent. In casting her net wide, Taylor panders to an international audience.

Although viewers, unfortunately, have to wait until the end of the feature-length documentary, Taylor ends up tying these international issues together, ultimately painting a bigger, global picture of how democracy functions — or, more accurately, how it struggles to function.

The verdict: Although it suffers from awkward pacing and bumpy sequencing, “What Is Democracy?” provides a rare opportunity to indulge in abstract philosophies, and reflect on our own society as a blip in time.

Reach reporter Claudia Yaw at Twitter: @yawclaudia

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