The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘American Selfie’ documentary holds a disheartening mirror up to America

A scene from “American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself.” (MTV Documentary Films/Showtime)
(3 stars)

With “American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself,” documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi holds a mirror up to her country, and the reflection is a sobering one.

Beginning in September last year, Pelosi set out to make a film about the iPhone and its impact on society and culture. Chronicling its cultlike popularity, she visited with people lined up at a New York Apple store in the early-morning hours to buy the latest model; meanwhile, just blocks away, others were gathering to demonstrate against environmental degradation that iPhone production has exacerbated to an exponential degree.

That kind of grimly ironic juxtaposition propels “American Selfie,” which Pelosi transformed into a travelogue through the United States at its most polarized. Month by month in the ensuing year, she visited Trump rallies, political protests, boarded-up shops, beleaguered communities, funeral homes and tourist stops — including the Super Bowl — interviewing citizens about their views of a country mired in vitriol, miscommunication and appalling wealth inequality. Pelosi couldn’t have known when she started that her film would chronicle the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd; what might have started as a year-in-the-life snapshot became something far deeper, darker and more despairing.

Moments of hope are scarce in “American Selfie,” but they can be found in the voices that Pelosi captures along the way. Starting with simple, open-ended questions, she simply lets her subjects speak, and they reward her with hard-won wisdom. Outside the Walmart in El Paso, Tex., where an anti-immigrant gunman murdered dozens of shoppers a few months earlier, a visitor presciently predicts that things will get much worse before they get better. When she asks an African American football fan if all men are treated equally in the United States, he scoffs with disbelief: “Is that a rhetorical question?” At a Black Friday sale she asks why Americans buy so much crap. “To fill the void in our souls with material goods,” a man cheerfully replies. He’s buying an air fryer.

Of course, the man in El Paso is right. As “American Selfie” makes its way into 2020, things take several turns for the worse, with ideological divides infecting our response to the virus (Pelosi attends several “reopen” rallies) and hyper-militarized local law enforcement making this country look less like a functioning democracy than a tyrannical police state.

If Pelosi’s preoccupation with extremes gives short shrift to the majority of Americans who don’t see everything through a political lens, her wide range and curiosity provide a portrait that is vivid, textured and deeply disheartening. “American Selfie” doesn’t diagnose, nor does it prescribe. Like the phenomenon that inspired its title, it just is — providing starkly candid evidence of who we were, once, and what we did to each other. It’s not a pretty picture.

TV-MA. Available Oct. 23 on Showtime. Contains profanity, violence and disturbing material. 105 minutes.