Theo Anthony is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore, MD. His work has been featured by such publications as The Atlantic and Vice, and in 2015 he was named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” His latest documentary, Rat Film, premiered at the 2016 Locarno International Film Festival and was released theatrically by Cinema Guild. Rat Film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Gotham Independent Film Awards.
I like television shows with a god complex. Jeff Probst on Survivor. Patti Stanger on Millionaire Matchmaker. The shrieking Greek chorus of finance on Shark Tank. Shows like these present not only a spectacle of power but the pathetic lengths that people will go to in order to maintain that very power. These structures, their inner workings made transparent for entertainment, reveal their flimsy bones.
A friend recently introduced me to The Profit, and through five seasons my bingeing has reached an ecstatic and sincere appreciation of this incredibly problematic show. It’s a show I love because of its problems. The Profit features millionaire investor Marcus Lemonis as the namesake Prophet/Profit as he travels around the country trying to save failing businesses. Balding with a Santa Clause sparkle in his eye, Marcus presents himself as the affable everyman on a mission. Bad religious puns, however, take an insidious turn when applied to the world of finance. If debt is sin, then hell is bankruptcy, and only the gospel of the Profit Marcus can save these poor souls.
The Profit is a modern-day Horatio Alger novel, a spectacle that serves the dual function of keeping the dream of capitalism alive and justifying the power of a ruling class with the ability to pick and choose which dreams live and which ones die. It’s a show that tries to establish its own morality, and to place itself on the good side of that, while doing everything in its ability to conceal that construction. Marcus would like you to think that the values of the outside world match those of the show — if he does good on the show, he is also doing good in the world. And he stands to make a killing off his own particular brand of “goodness.”
The recent “Mr. Cory’s Cookies” episode, which follows Marcus as he tries to save the titular baked goods company, neatly illustrates my frustration about and fascination with the show. The face of the business is Cory, an adorable suit-wearing 13-year-old with a bright smile and poise well beyond his years. He heads up the company with his mom, Lisa, a single black mother who grew up in foster care, now thrust into the role of business exec. Their story of survival is foregrounded throughout the episode as both a well-deserved personal accomplishment and also a stubborn obstacle to the show’s progress. Cory and Lisa’s struggles — and all the race, class, and gender intersections contained within them — are appealing to Marcus because struggle makes a good product. For Lisa, however, the realness of her struggle has instilled a deep skepticism for people like Marcus. The episode’s narrative then asserts itself: How do you sell a capitalist system of extraction and profit back to people who have been failed by this very same system? “I’ve been burned so many times,” Lisa tells Marcus. To which Marcus can only reply, “Trust me, trust this, just one more time.”
Mr. Cory’s Cookies are delicious because they’re homemade, but because they’re homemade, they won’t last on shelves. And because they can’t get them on shelves, the business is unable to grow. And so the essential tension of the show emerges: At what point do you surrender your realness to become profitable? And what agency is left once you’ve lost your realness?
As he takes every chance to remind the audience, Marcus is a “people, product, and process” person. He’s in the market for real people to make an authentic product. This conversion of people to product is his process. But to Marcus, and the entire system that he gatekeeps, realness is only as valuable as its asking price. The homemade cookie doesn’t actually have to be homemade, it just has to be sold as one. (“The packaging is going to be more important than the product itself,” he non-ironically proclaims in another episode.)
Over the course of the show, it’s revealed that a co-packer has taken advantage of Lisa’s lack of formal education by making a deal in which she surrendered all her licensing rights. On top of that, the co-packer has taken the Mr. Cory brand and slapped it on a disgusting cookie designed to meet shelf-life needs. In a dramatic scene teased before every commercial break, Lisa storms out of a meeting with Marcus and the co-packers. “At the end of the day, Mr. Cory’s Cookies is not making money,” she tells Marcus in the parking lot. “All I care about is my son and building a brand. But this is the problem when you don’t have the right resources or the brain, you get fucked and this is what happens.” Marcus takes a long sympathetic glance at Lisa. He sighs. “Let me work my magic.”
And he does. Marcus walks back into the restaurant and threatens a blaze of litigation that scares off the bad guys. What viewer wouldn’t want him to do work his magic? But in this magical act is the crux of the bait and switch, the deliberate conflation of ethics and profitability. The Profit sees you, he empathizes and understands where you’re coming from, he validates your singular experience in the infinite chaos of the universe with the promise of a great beyond. A place beyond debt, beyond worry, a path to transcend this earthly struggle through the promise of financial security. And just like that, he’s got you. Who would want any different? But what if the problem wasn’t all the bad people that one must use magic to dispel, but a system that grants people magical powers in the first place? What does agency then look like, if privileged actors can throw out the rules at any moment?
I can’t look at The Profit without seeing a direct comparison to my own non-fiction work. The documentary director surveys the world, looking for subjects, looking for stories to arrange into a film — the people, the product, and the process of storytelling. This arrangement of human lives is not based on a universal moral rubric but on their value proposition within a film. These are very different things with entirely different agendas. Yet a documentary filmmaker – just like Marcus – so often blurs or erases this difference under the guise of a neutral or moralistic stance that erodes both the agency of the subject and the very body of the filmmaker making that claim. As the writer Maggie Nelson says, “when something needs to be willfully erased in order to get somewhere, there is usually a problem.”
The first thing you’re taught in documentary is to know your subject, to gain trust through intimacy. Without flattening the nuance of the many different approaches, I want to complicate the assumption that the motives behind intimacy are pure and good, that they are separate from the system of profit that they exist in. At what point is intimacy just an investment in order to extract those moments that have the most capital in film? What does being intimate permit? What does informed consent look like in a larger economic system that does not ask for it? In a filmic system whose edit is ultimately up to the filmmaker?
The vérité filmmaker Robert Drew liked to say the trick was to get in the door and hang around until people forget you’re there. The strategy of late capitalism (or whatever you want to call it) is to make itself intimate, convenient, and above all else, invisible. The apparatus becomes so entwined with the environment that we no longer can distinguish it from the environment itself. For the people behind a camera, a business model or a global economic system, it becomes convenient to proclaim objectivity, neutrality or even a moral high ground because doing so erases the very body that must be held accountable.
I’m not advocating that documentary has to perform a specific job, or satisfy an agenda, or become some navel-gazing apology for having made a film in the first place. Thank god, those aren’t the only options on the table. Ultimately, to tell the story of an outside world we must do it through the lens of our subjective interior experience, and what I like about the documentary form is that I feel somewhere in its essence is an acceptance, even harmony, within this paradox. It’s a practice filled with dirty work and grey areas, and the point isn’t to avoid or remove those moments altogether but to embrace them as opportunities to complicate our assumptions of a neatly divisible world. I believe there is nothing as capable as non-fiction at laying bare the fictions that structure our reality. As a director, I aspire to a radical transparency and accountability about the innumerable subjective decisions that construct any documentary project. How did I meet my subjects? Did I pay them? Do they still make money off of the film? How do they feel about what I made? Why are documentary filmmakers continuously ashamed to admit to their construction, to continue to hide behind the deliberately murky veil of some artist-scientist of the real? What does the documentary form lose in shedding this facade? And who does it profit if we don’t?
At the end of the episode, Marcus strikes off another wish on Cory’s list — an office. Over an ecstatic montage of cheers and swelling score, Marcus narrates his victory. Cory and Lisa tearfully collapse into Marcus’ arms with the fervor of the newly converted. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve worked so hard, been through so much, and now here they are, with their own office, a profitable business, and one of the richest men in America by their side. Corey and Lisa are the exception that proves the rule, their life story now an advertisement for the capitalist system upholding that rule. But still, and this is all-important, this is what they wanted, and at least they have equity in whatever it is they’re selling. But how many out there don’t?
Maybe I like The Profit because Marcus is so candid about the whole game, or at least refreshingly poor at covering up his basest motivations. The episode ends, the game has won again, but another one comes on — the game reloads and repeats. Same script, different actors, the seams begin to show. Google searches reveal that many of the companies featured on the show are no longer in business. The Profit’s myth is just that: a myth. For a moment, I’m outside the drama and the mess. From this height, I can see it all and can confirm that it’s a stupid and tragic fucking game. A comfortable and cowardly illusion from my privileged viewing position. Still, I watch again. Perhaps if an unjust god can be defeated in miniature, I can feel some agency in my life. A blueprint for demolition is unveiled, and for a moment, new futures flicker into possibility, just beyond the edges of the screen.
A big thank you to Corey Hughes for introducing me to the show, and to Zia Anger and Jack Anthony for helping develop these ideas in conversation.