On the morning of the 2016 US presidential election, national polls gave Donald Trump a 7 to 29% chance of winning. So begins 11/8/16, a documentary that compiles stories of that day, 16 subjects filmed by 16 artists. The first noise you hear is ticking, over a wide view of the Empire State Building in the early, still-dark hours. The sound suggests a countdown, bridging to a closeup of taxi driver Amrit at morning prayer. Afterwards, he speaks with fellow Sikhs, noting that they have been able to “have some identity” in America. “Otherwise,” he adds, “we don’t have an identity anywhere else in the world.” Continue reading…
Amrit’s sense of his community is set against that expressed by Eric, a coal miner in Summersville, West Virginia. His morning also begins with a routine: his wife packs his lunch and walks him to their front door. His voice over reveals that he’s been working in the mines since 1993. “it gets in your blood,” he says. “And you just can’t walk away from it.” As he walks from the locker room to the mine, the camera follows him. He passes from the new morning into the darkness of the mine as he admits, “I’m a little nervous about the outcome of the election. The future for our kids, the future for the coal industry, the future for everybody. I just hope everything works out.”
Amrit is a Hillary Clinton supporter, and Eric is voting for Donald Trump. As each looks ahead to the election before them, we are now looking at history. While the documentary spends time with people from many places — Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, DC, Newbury, VT and Kingston, NY — and on several sides — including Calene in Kaysville, Utah, identified as a “full time mom and Evan McMullin for President volunteer” — no one who appears on screen asserts out loud that Trump will win. By the end of the film, the surprise of his election affects everyone, in different ways. During the film, their hopes and fears, as well as their expectations and best guesses, frame conversations, interviews, and debates.
Much as he did for his documentary about Barack Obama’s election, 11/4/08, producer Jeff Deutchman curates many pieces to create something like a whole. The lack of resolution this time certainly has to do with the unexpected outcome, but even more profoundly, watching the film a year later, it has to do with the chaos since the election. Whether viewers wanted this outcome or not, it’s hard to make sense of it — or what has happened since.
Part of what makes 11/8/16 resonate — what makes it excruciating or jarring or revealing — is our current state, what we know now, and what we anticipate knowing in the days and weeks to come. As stories about Facebook ads (seen by 126 million Americans during the election season) and the Robert Mueller investigation emerge, the election a year ago looks less and less legitimate. Seeing what happened then, now, suggests that the shock of that day was engineered.
Each filmmaker takes a different approach to showing what happened then, some observational, others visibly engaged with their subjects. In Martha Shane’s section, Jesus, a community organizer and Dreamer in San Jose, talks about “being too Mexican for America and being too American for Mexico.” He’s been in the US for 26 years; he and his fellow Dreamers face deportation if Trump is elected. “Faith is all we have left,” Viviana says, tears in her eyes. “How will organizations like ours [PACT, People Acting in Community Together] face our members, what will we say to them?” If Trump wins, she says, “It’s as if our work and our lives didn’t matter.”
The film makes the case that each of these experiences matters. Ciara Lacy’s section, set in Honolulu, focuses on Vernon, who calls himself houseless, rather than homeless. He and his girlfriend Lorilynn live in a tent. “They say your vote will make a difference,” he says, “But to me, I don’t think so.” All he knows about Trump, Vernon says, “is he’s rich.” In Miami, combat veteran Adrian knows he’s voting against Hillary. Even if Trump “kind of comes off like a dick,” he says, “My government is a dick. They’re bullies, they bully the most vulnerable of our society.” Adrian smiles, “Don’t we need a dick to deal with that?”
It’s a familiar logic, looking back. Trump would “shake things up.” No one thought he was a moral model or even trustworthy. His supporters saw in him a means to an end. Bassam Tariq’s piece on Amrit rides with him in his cab, showing the bridge overhead as he drives into the city. “It’s good for us if Hillary wins, he says, “Trump said that he will report all Muslims.” He and his friends stand in the cab company parking lot and share their thoughts, the camera handheld and low on their faces: “They all say the same thing. Some say it openly, and others behind closed doors.” As we drive with him a few minutes later, Amrit notices, “There is traffic near Trump’s building.”
In Dora, Alabama, Anthony Ray Hinton, a wrongly convicted former death row inmate, is now able to vote. But he worries. “It’s hard to trust people who have oppressed you for no reason other than the color of your skin. And when black people vote, there’s a stigma that they shouldn’t have been allowed to vote,” he says, his “I voted” sticker pasted on his forehead. “All night we been watching this election and all night,” he tells filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace, “You been saying white folks coming out to vote in record numbers, in the rural areas. And why did they come out? Because he spoke their language.”
“I really believe that white people do things simply because they have power, and no one can stop them. White folks live for today they don’t live for tomorrow. So, black folks looks at ’em and they ask themselves, perhaps every day, ‘How can someone be the way y’all are?'” — Anthony Ray Hinton, 11/8/16
Here 11/8/16 cuts back to Eric and his family, watching the election returns on TV. Van Jones is making the speech that went viral, about the nightmare the election represented to so many citizens, the fears it confirmed for immigrants and people of color. The camera cuts between the TV, with Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones set apart in a split screen, to Eric’s family on the couch. Eric’s wife reacts: “If they are terrified enough that they have to ask the question, ‘Should I leave this country?’ then they should not be in this country, if they even have to ask the question.” This is the language Donald Trump speaks.
This is the language that makes the 2016 election at once frightening and predictable. The subjects in 11/8/16 perform their disappointment or their satisfaction with the result, addressing the camera as they ponder what might come next. These performances don’t so much represent truths as they mirror the stories we tell ourselves, our explanations for our beliefs, our efforts to understand, our hopes for the future. As we watch this history today, we might imagine and reimagine how it happened, and think hard about whether the system failed or fulfilled its promise, that a candidate full of rage and a campaign fueled by sensational and social media would win.
“Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” — Donald Trump Tweet 171030