Boys State was screened as part of the AFI Docs Festival in June. It is now streaming from Apple TV+.
Every time an election comes around in the United States there is talk about the important impact of the youth vote. Yet, for the most part, there is little evidence of it. If there is a postmodern equivalent of the 1960s counterculture, it resides not with progressive youth but with activists on the Far Right.
This controversial documentary directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss focuses on the Boys State program which was started by the American Legion in 1935. Past participants include Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Clinton. In Texas, every summer more than 1100 teenage boys come from all over the state to play at politics. This film follows what happened at the 2018 gathering.
First, the boys are quizzed on questions such as who they consider to be a hero and what the flag means to them. Then they are split into two parties -- the Nationalists and the Federalists -- and individuals run for various offices with the prize position being the Governor. The four lead contenders are Ben who sees himself as a political junkie; Robert, who is handsome and charismatic; Rene, an African-American who in this crowd is eventually treated with disdain; and Steven, a progressive-minded son of Mexican immigrants who at the outset in astonished that almost everyone attending the camp is conservative, including some who are proud of being white supremacists.
Almost all of the lead players, except for Steven, mimic the amorality of Washington politicians whom they have seen using dirty tricks and smear campaigns to become winners. The shadow of President Trump hangs over these boys as they look at the issues that they think will make America great again. They scream in support of anti-abortion laws, more guns, more police power, and unbridled patriotism.
If you are among those who believe that we are headed down a road of progressive change, take a hard look at Boys State along with the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp where Christian youth are trained to become militant soldiers in the cultural wars. Both films trash the values and visions of citizenship, openness, diversity, and respect for all.