The opening shots of American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself recall a gone age of innocence: an unmasked multi-racial crowd frolicking around The Bean, Anish Kapoor’s shiny piece of Chicago public art that works like a fun-house mirror, reflecting distorted images. iPhone cameras are out, pointed at their owners. “I guess I’m a narcissist, a little bit,” one young man concedes. A woman, waxing philosophical, observes that the selfie proves “that you’re actually doing things and you’re living and you exist.”
American Selfie, a snapshot of the country from September 2019 to July 2020, is not unlike the grotesque reflection in that fun-house mirror. Here is Trump’s walled and fractious America looking inward at itself, with nowhere left to go empire-wise, the awful reckoning historian Greg Grandin describes in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America finally at hand.
Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi—whose mother is the Speaker of the House—traversed the country from coast to coast. She started this journey late last summer outside the glass box of the Midtown Manhattan Apple Store, where shoppers were lined up at dawn to acquire the latest iPhone model, and then downtown on the same day, where thousands rallied for climate-change action. She filmed pre– and post–George Floyd Minneapolis; the racist chants of “Send her back,” directed at Representative Ilhan Omar, at a Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina; the scene at an El Paso Walmart following a racist mass shooting that claimed the lives of 22 people, including children; a Black Friday shopping frenzy where one man, pushing a cart piled with boxed products, concedes to the cameras with a chuckle that, yes, Americans are filling “the void in our souls with material goods.” Pelosi recorded January’s armed anti-gun-control protests in Richmond, Virginia, and New York City in March and April: forklifts moving bodies to refrigerated trucks, an overwhelmed funeral home in Harlem.
Here is a Venn diagram of American clans, with anti-science, gun-loving, God-fearing, and racist tribes facing off against their opposites in the streets. Anti-maskers shriek at police, bearing signs blaming Fauci and Gates for the coronavirus conspiracy. Trump’s goons clear peaceful protesters for his now infamous D.C. photo op; as tear gas wafts, a Black man says, “We can go out and get a degree and they can still kill us. We can be bird-watching and they can still kill us!” A white man shouts, “I’m not going to apologize for being white!”
The film is a selfie of a million selfies. It goes inside the scrum of the street fights, where, bullhorn to bullhorn, hundreds of thousands of Americans wave personal handheld devices and record every epithet and spittle of rage, every spray of tear gas, every shove and slur, and the sick sound of truncheon on flesh, the crack of rubber bullet.
It’s not a pretty selfie. And we can’t delete it.
American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself is available to watch on Showtime
Nina Burleigh is the author of The Trump Women: Part of the Deal