The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House committee to release first-of-its-kind documentary on economic inequality

A 30-minute film, produced by Congress, strives to connect Americans through storytelling

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces in June 2021 the creation of a select committee on economic inequality. Next to Pelosi is Rep. Jim Himes, who led a documentary project by the committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A bipartisan House select committee is set to release a first-of-its-kind documentary-style film on economic inequality in America, a modern historical record of three uniquely American stories that members hope bursts the political and partisan bubble around the issue in Washington.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in June 202o to chair the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, has spearheaded a novel approach to the traditionally staid committee assignment, vowing to not only anchor the committee’s work outside Washington but also to create a more lasting and impactful product than yet another moldering congressional report.

“I really wanted to put a huge emphasis on not just producing a sterile report, but on getting American stories out there in a very big way, in the service of understanding and moving away from stereotypical thinking and in the service of reducing polarization,” Himes told The Washington Post in an interview.

The 30-minute documentary, titled “Grit & Grace: The Fight for the American Dream,” is the first ever produced by the House and will premiere Dec. 13 at the National Archives as part of a field hearing centered on storytelling and the American Dream.

The framework is reminiscent of another federally funded artistic endeavor that shaped Himes’s and the committee’s process.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, Roy Stryker was tapped to run a photographic unit inside a government agency called the Farm Security Administration. Stryker’s mandate was to enhance the public perception of government aid by documenting the work of the U.S. government to help poor farmers and their families. But with the help of a legendary troop of photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks, Stryker’s unit produced evocative — and at times controversial — portraits that captured Americans’ complicated relationship with the federal government. The result was a trove of some of the most iconic and defining photographs of the Great Depression.

Inspired in particular by the landmark work of Evans, who became best known for his New Deal-era photos of rural Appalachia, the documentary originated from Himes’s desire to move beyond “a statistical, policy-oriented conversation that often reduces Americans to stereotypes” and to “show America to itself.”

To do so, Himes had to look outside the halls of the Capitol. He entrusted development and production of the film to senior committee staffer Eric Harris, who over the course of four months interviewed nearly 150 people across the country. Harris, a co-creator and senior producer of the project, brought in Emmy-award winning PBS Frontline producer Oscar Guerra to direct it. Guerra, Harris and a crew then narrowed the story down to highlight three vignettes of Americans with dramatically divergent experiences with, and views of, the American Dream.

The crew embedded with Jeremy Cook, a small-business owner living in Augusta, W.Va., who is a caregiver to his two adult sons with nonverbal autism; Alicia Villaneuva, a Hayward, Calif.-based Mexican immigrant who launched a company making and selling tamales; and Joseph Graham Jr., a single father in Concord, N.C., who secured his bachelor’s and master’s degrees later in life.

“This is certainly not an advertisement for how great the American government is,” Harris said. “But it does underscore the opportunities — and maybe even the exceptionalism — that this country had for ultimately providing opportunities to all three families in unique situations.”

The three stories are woven together by a surprising narrator: actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

Despite Parker’s on-screen proclivity for $1,000 shoes in the familiar role of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” Parker grew up poor and on welfare, and described her participation in the documentary as personal.

“As someone who grew up in a family that experienced economic hardship firsthand, this was a unique opportunity to share stories of dignity and strength, shedding light on hard-working individuals across our country in their pursuit of the American Dream,” Parker said in a statement. “In this era of deep division, the need for empathy among Americans couldn’t be more important. I see this film as a vehicle for the kind of compassion and mutual understanding that’s missing amid this polarized time.”

The release of the documentary marks an unprecedented break from the traditional output of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was heralded for putting on a series of visual and highly produced hearings over the summer to present its findings. But the short film from Himes’s select committee is perhaps even more of an experimental approach to communicating with the American public.

“Congress is getting a little smarter about how to communicate to the American people,” said Himes, who added that the committee, which is tasked with developing solutions to wealth inequality, aimed to make the documentary accessible to as many people as possible — no small feat from a post-insurrection institution that has been marred by bitter political polarization.

When Stryker was interviewed at the end of his life to memorialize his legacy as the director of the Farm Security Administration’s photography unit, he predicted that dire political forces would prevent anyone from replicating the sprawling mission to document hardship around the country ever again.

“I think that to go down there and try to get a photographic project like Farm Security again … you’d have to surmount some pretty dire situations politically,” Stryker said. “I don’t think you could.”

Even at a smaller scale, Himes, along with committee counterpart and ranking member Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), struggled at times to navigate some of the challenges of operating within a deeply polarized system, Himes said.

That meant making the film appealing to both Fox News and MSNBC viewers, according to Himes and Harris. Lawmakers serving on the committee who participated in the project span the ideological spectrum, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), and Kat Cammack (R-Fla.).

“Listening to the American people is something Congress needs to do more often. I am proud that our committee has been able to do exactly that,” Steil said in a statement. “From field hearings to interviews with American workers, Chairman Himes and I worked hard to ensure we heard from regular, working families across the country, not just the vested interests in Washington, D.C., who are always in the room.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) was appointed in June 2021 to chair the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. He was appointed in June 2020. A photo caption in the article incorrectly stated that the announcement of the committee's creation occurred in June of this year. That happened in June 2021. The article and caption have been corrected.

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