NEW YORK — As he began releasing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG” last month, David Linde, head of the socially activist Hollywood firm Participant Media, noticed a strange phenomenon. Consumers were going to theaters, posing next to life-size marketing cutouts of Bader Ginsburg, then posting the photos to social media.
“People were taking all these pictures — in some cases, they were even dressing up,” Linde said the documentary about the longtime Supreme Court justice. “For a documentary!” he added. “They were treating her like a superhero.”
Political anger can make pop-culture consumers do unexpected things. It sent liberals to theaters in droves to see Michael Moore’s anti-George Bush treatise “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and turned out conservatives for Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Democrat opus “2016 Obama’s America” (transforming the movies into the two highest-grossing documentaries of all time, not counting music and nature films). Livid at the White House, Americans have fanned their rage by going to the movies.
But anger over Donald Trump appears to be taking a different form. It is driving scores of people this spring to two less obvious creations — “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — films about an octogenarian judge and the late Fred Rogers, public television’s soft-spoken, shoe-tying poster child for love and acceptance.
While movie theaters don’t break down patrons by political affiliation, the distributors of both films believe their releases are popular because of anti-Trump sentiment. These movies, they say, offer a safety valve for steamed times.
“I don’t think either of these films would do anywhere near as well without Trump, no,” said Eamonn Bowles, head of the New York-based Magnolia Pictures, which is co-distributing “RBG” with Participant. “People [on the left] need something to hold fast to amid this ugly tide; they want decency and civility. They need to be inspired.”
Both “RBG” and “Neighbor,” Morgan Neville’s examination of Rogers’ faith-tinged humanism and pioneering influence, are smashes. “RBG” has already taken in more than $10 million at the box office, turning it into the 11th-highest-grossing documentary of all time, with the movie still going strong. Meanwhile, in just two weeks of release on several dozen screens by the Comcast-owned Focus Features, “Neighbor” has grossed nearly $2 million — highly unusual for a documentary.
Those numbers won’t come as a surprise to those who watched the demand for Moore’s and D’Souza’s work rise, respectively, with the liberal anger against Bush and conservative antipathy for Obama.
But the pattern this time is different from “Fahrenheit” and “Obama’s America.” Those movies were explicitly about presidents and their policies. And they were polemics, made by partisans.
These films are, executives note, addressing not Trump himself but a style of politics he represents.
“Not to get too philosophical, but there’s something happening now I think with what you might call an entrenchment of the teams,” said Peter Kujawski, Focus Features’ chairman. “There’s become the sense that winning the day for your point of view is the goal. And these two movies are coming along and saying that it’s not about another thing we can ‘like’ on Facebook so we can feel good around our friends who agree with us. It’s about kindness, and using the power of cinema to reframe the conversation that way.”
In the case of “RBG,” that means a chance to witness a 1970s-era Bader Ginsburg levelheadedly fighting for gender equality against misogynists, an approach as endangered temperamentally as it was ahead of its time politically. The movie cuts to her many professional triumphs and progressive rulings.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who began making their film in January 2015, months before Trump even declared (and nearly three years ahead of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements), say they feel their movie is more salve than retort.
“I think a lot of people go in to the film knowing they admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but they come out surprised by aspects of her story,” West said. “They feel an overall happiness that there’s someone out there still keeping herself fit and training to do the job of making change.”
“We’re storytellers first,” said Cohen, who, like her fellow director, was motivated to make the movie because she felt Bader Ginsburg, for all her social-media currency among young people, had not had her full story revealed to them. “If people do come motivated to work for change, we feel good about that.”
“Neighbor” came about for similar non-advocacy reasons. Neville, who won an Oscar several years ago for his backup-musician tale “20 Feet from Stardom,” wanted to explore a man he felt was beloved by many but in danger of being forgotten in a more snark-filled public life.
The movie is very much about Rogers as a television figure — how he handled heady topics like the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Jim Crow laws (via a canny piece of kiddie-pool camaraderie with an African American cast member) on air. And, yes, there’s even a bit of immigration (via an edict from the puppet King Friday).
The film is not shy about noting that Rogers, an ordained minister, was a lifelong Republican whose faith informed his views. But it depicts a man who almost seems to be speaking directly, from beyond the grave, against the vibe of the current Republican occupant of the White House.
“Those who would try to make you feel ‘less than’ who you are — I think that’s the greatest evil,” he says in one clip.
Neville told The Washington Post he saw the movie’s “radical kindness” as a kind of subtle reply, there only for those who want to hear it. “I wasn’t interested in a film that preached. I was interested in one that asked questions about moral leadership,” he said in a recent interview.
Film experts have been intrigued by the fact that the anti-White House film movement is taking this form instead of the more usual path of Moore and D’Souza. It might be that people are already getting the anger they once got out at the movie theater onto social media. Or it may be they feel that what they dislike about this White House has as much to do with personality as policy, and thus demands a new form of counterstrike.
“Both Rogers and RBG are using their tools of intellect and sensitivity, and I think that resonates strongly when a lot of people feel they’re facing tough ideological battles,” said Thom Powers, a documentary expert who programs for the Toronto International Film Festival. “They feel a need for real-life superheroes.”
Whether “RBG” and “Neighbor” will have an impact outside movie theaters remains to be seen. While documentary has a track record of advocacy — the 2013 film “Blackfish” shamed SeaWorld into changing its ways while “An Inconvenient Truth” turbocharged the environmental movement — political documentaries tend to be as much a signal of frustration as a tool for action. “Fahrenheit,” despite its massive popularity, failed in its aim of swaying the 2004 presidential election.
But these movies can, distributors say, shape a zeitgeist. “I don’t know if it’s so much about changing the world as it is giving people a little hope,” Bowles said.
“RBG” and “Neighbor” are also coming at a time when many question whether the documentary should even be in theaters instead of on Netflix (or as a cable docuseries). But these movies have reasserted a kind of cultural primacy for the form itself. On two weekends in May, “RBG” even cracked the box-office top 10, ahead of far more heavily marketed, if older, Hollywood froth like “Blockers” and “Rampage.” The theater and its communal aspects are partly why, their backers believe.
“I think audiences feel the need to be with other people when they see our movie,” Linde said. “It’s just not the same watching it by yourself.”
Participant and Magnolia bought “RBG” after one such rousing screening at Sundance in January. “RBG” has since become the highest-grossing release ever for Magnolia, a long-standing art house company behind prestige-film favorites like “Two Lovers” and decorated documentaries such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Focus bought “Neighbor” even earlier — months before its Sundance premiere, when it was still in an unfinished state, on the belief that its subject’s message was needed.
At the end of “Neighbor,” Joanne Rogers, the star’s widow, appears on camera making one of the only clear allusions to this era of Trumpian discourse.
“I can’t think about how he would feel about the things that have come out that have seem to have set us back so far,” she said. “I wonder if he would have … just stayed home and say ‘forget about even trying.’”
Many of his fans, at least, are doing the opposite.