Making America Great

In The King, Eugene Jarecki is taking aim at one of our nation's sacred cows. But, despite what the trolls say, it's not Elvis.

What is it about my new film that makes some people so angry?

The strange thing is, they haven’t even seen it yet. When the trailer came out last week, it seems to have been enough for some people to conclude that the film wasn’t worth their time. But don’t just watch the trailer. Make sure to scroll down and check out the unbridled vitriol you’ll find in the comments section. Of course, I know we live in the age of the troll, so some part of this can be written off to the echo chamber of cyberspace. But read carefully and you’ll discover something deeper and more troubling.

Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and “friend”

The King, which opens in theaters today in New York City before expanding across the country, is a musical road trip in Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce. It stars an amazing cast of famous and everyday Americans, including Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris, Chuck D, Mike Myers, Ethan Hawke and Rosanne Cash, all of whom hop aboard the Rolls Royce to play music and share reflections about the man and his country, as we follow Elvis’ footsteps across America. From his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, Nashville, New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we watch contemporary America pass outside the window of his onetime Rolls Royce, and an allegory emerges between America’s favorite son and the country he left behind. It’s a poetic journey through past and present, full of love, admiration, and a genuine desire to understand the state of the “American dream.”
What I could not have imagined is that, for some, it would be perceived as an act of war against everything great and good about America. In previous films, I’ve gone up against some sacred institutions. I attacked the all-powerful military-industrial complex. I asked whether America’s elder statesman Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. I advised Americans to shift their banking out of Goliath too-big-to-fail banks into community banks and credit unions. I accused America of conducting the “war on drugs” as a de facto genocide against African-Americans. I even made a film critical of one of America’s most revered presidents, for crying out loud. But none of these, not one, produced the kind of hate mail that a single trailer for The King has.

But why? I’ve been racking my brain for days to figure out what is striking such a nerve. And I think I have figured it out – at least in part. Of course, my film is not an attack on Elvis Presley. Quite the contrary. I grew up immersed in Elvis, have always loved him, and would not have spent the last five years of my life making a film about him if he didn’t fascinate me. I wouldn’t have sought out his friends and colleagues and incorporated them into my study of his life and career. So what is it then? The answer is that I have attacked something, but it isn’t Elvis. I’ve attacked a mythology that some Americans are clinging to, a nostalgia for a “better time” that, for the moment, seems to get them through the night. And I totally understand this. I do it myself.

Eugene Jarecki filming The King

At the center of the film is an inquiry into the state of the American dream today. And I freely admit, it’s a tough and uncompromising look at where we are. As we traveled across the country, it was no secret to anyone we spoke to that Americans today feel pain, confusion and disillusionment. For too long, they feel the country has been run to the benefit of a kind of ruling elite and at the expense of the many. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people,” seems a distant, almost quaint memory. In the face of this, hard-working people need somewhere to turn to avoid feeling hopeless. So where do they turn? To a nostalgia for the past and an illusion of what the American dream once was. But we have to be honest with ourselves. When was it so great? When we annihilated the Native Americans who were already living here? When we captured millions of Africans, enslaved them, and took the fruits of their labor? When we prohibited women, African-Americans, and anyone really other than big white men from voting? When was this glowing past that was so wonderful?

Some may think just asking these questions means I hate America. Of course I don’t – quite the contrary. I’ve spent my entire adult life making films that look for the best in America and celebrate it. And all of these forms of oppression and abuse I’ve cited were common throughout the old world from which America emerged. So America is not uniquely guilty of these crimes in the slightest. She was just the staging ground for these continuing crimes of the old world. But as with everything she does, she did these more epically, more expansively than ever before, and then she put them into syndication and ran them as reruns. But then what do I feel? I love this country. I love the ideas for which it was established, the ideas for which so many have given their lives and toil. All of this matters as much to me as to anyone. Indeed, I care about it all so much that it inspires me to demand that we live up to all that, that the country truly fulfill the promise of its founding.

Chuck D in The King

What I sense too often these days is that, for the majority of Americans – and nearly everyone I encountered along our journey – modern life is so complex, between mortgages to pay, kids to keep safe, endless red tape and multiple jobs that barely keep body and soul together, that the act of being an engaged citizen who demands that the country live up to its creed, seems like just one great big add-on. But that’s extremely dangerous to our democracy. For, without the “people” part, how can we possibly hope to get back to the Framers’ “of the, by the, and for the” dream? More than ever in this turbulent and perilous time in our history, every last one of us must ask ourselves whether we are doing the work needed to preserve the values of a democracy. The truth is – and we all know it – that in America today we place power and money above all else: above democracy, above decency, above dignity, above family, above kindness, you name it. (How else could we have ended up with profit-driven centers for separating children from their parents and placing them in cages?) But this kind of unbridled capitalism is precisely what took its toll on Elvis. It led to his demise, and it will lead to ours too if we do not heed his example. This takes work, of course, real work, and asking tough questions of ourselves.

And that’s where I fear all this anger comes from. For facing such a task, it’s easier to fall back on old dreams of how it once was, to leaf through old pictures from high school. But that’s Kool-Aid. And all it does is make you fat and hyper, and then leave you feeling spent and empty. My film, if it does anything, tries to take away this Kool-Aid. And I don’t mind taking it away, because I am not afraid of our not having it. In just this year alone, from #MeToo to #TimesUp to the extraordinary students of Parkland, to the mayoral resistance for Sanctuary Cities, to the outpouring of protest against the recent immigrant family separation policies, we are seeing what courage and democracy truly look like. For the first time in decades. And if we keep it up, it’s only the beginning.

Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning documentary director and producer. His latest film, The King, a fascinating musical road trip in Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce that explores how the hell we got here and where we are going, is out June 22 through Oscilloscope Films. Jarecki made his film debut with The Trials of Henry Kissinger in 2002, and won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a Peabody Award for his 2005 film Why We Fight. In 2010, he created Move Your Money, a viral short encouraging Americans to shift their money from too-big-to-fail banks to community banks and credit unions. His Emmy-award winning 2011 film, Reagan, premiered at Sundance before broadcasting on HBO. The House I Live In, his 2013 film about America’s War on Drugs, once again won him the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as a second Peabody Award. He executive produced the Sundance award-winning documentary (T)ERROR, as well as Denial, which aired on PBS in 2017. In 2016, Jarecki directed The Cyclist as part of Amazon’s The New Yorker Presents series.