Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Kevin Ford, The Pushback is the type of SXSW film that would have been a near guarantee to be a smash hit with festival audiences thanks to its local connections. Still, even if one isn’t from the area in question, Ford’s movie makes some interesting claims regarding the state of democracy in America.
Over the course of the film, Ford follows two groundbreaking women as they run for office in Texas, one with the goal of becoming the first Latina Congresswoman from Texas, and the other the only African-American running for a city council seat in Austin. Like last year’s similarly-themed documentary Knock Down the House, Ford’s movie works because it is compelling to see these people busting through the glass ceiling.
That said, as is the case with so many political documentaries, Ford attempts to go too big with his story, and loses some of its impact as a result. Although both of these female politicians have fascinating experiences, Ford feels the need to create a parallel between their experiences and the campaign of the much higher-profile Beto O’Rourke.
With this comes the loss of some of the connection that the audience would have otherwise had with the film’s subjects. Natasha Harper-Madison, who is campaigning for city council, gets more screen time than Veronica Escobar, and as a result, feels more developed. The other storylines of the movie feel underwhelming.
Another thing that will hold the film back is that it is very aggressively political. In certain sequences, Ford and his interviewees seem to be acting as if liberalism in Texas is under attack. This will frustrate the movie’s conservative viewers, and even potentially alienate a moderate audience that could have benefitted from hearing the story.
Regardless, there is something inspiring about the two main stories that are on display in this film. Interviews with Harper-Madison and Escobar prove that they are among the politicians who are in the field to make a difference and change lives, rather than to make a profit. In a time of division, this is an important reminder of how the government can help the people when it is functioning properly.
On a technical level, Ford’s movie is certainly very polished, and that is another thing working in its favor. Combining fly-on-the-wall footage with interviews gives the film a very personal feel that a political documentary like this needs to succeed. Furthermore, Ford shoots some of the more high-intensity sequences, such as the elections, in a thriller-like style, allowing greater investment from the viewer.
Kevin Ford’s documentary The Pushback may not be as narratively streamlined as it could spare to be, but it offers a compelling story nonetheless. It’s a shame that Texas audiences weren’t able to see this at SXSW, but hopefully the opportunity will eventually come their way.
The Pushback was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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