Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority (2008)
Directed by Kimberlee Bassford
Distributed by Women Make Movies
In 2011, the recently perennial biopic genre maintained its weighty presence in mainstream and art-house cinemas. Notably, films depicting the life of historical heavyweights like J. Edgar Hoover, Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn Monroe have been released, critically noted and consumed by viewers. But is the main purpose of biographic films simply to reinforce the presence and knowledge of individuals already well established in the cultural and political national consciousness? Or should the biopic be used to illuminate the lives of those who have been both impactful and groundbreaking, but also heretofore largely ignored or forgotten? Director Kimberlee Bassford attempts to use the biographic film for the latter purpose with her film Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, which focuses on the life and achievements of the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives. Patsy Mink is a competently informational primer on the groundbreaking figure, and relies largely on reliable, if predictable, documentary techniques. But surely a subject as radical and sui generis as Mink could have lent itself to a far more incisive, complex and daring ways of presenting her story--much in the same way that Mink exhibited all of those qualities when blazing numerous trails in her political and personal life. With Patsy Mink, what the viewer is left with is a lesson in originality wrapped in a structurally and aesthetically restrained package.
Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority traces the trials and achievements of the groundbreaking Congresswoman. Connecting her early years in Hawaii to her formative years in the continental United States, Bassford traces Mink's evolution from an idealistic young girl to a fiercely independent politician. The film begins Mink's portrait by establishing her as emblematic of the minority experience in 1950s America, as she faced discrimination both due to her gender (in her chosen career paths) as well as her ethnicity (at school). While establishing Mink's raft of unique achievements--including a brief run for president, being instrumental in attaining statehood to Hawaii, and being a rare, early and vocal opponent of both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror--Bassford makes the case that, while running up against entrenched interests and societal barriers, Mink was a stern but happy warrior. The most engaging sequences of the film are when Mink herself is present--either through filmed interviews, voiceover segments or in found footage of her time on the House floor. The assertion that Mink is a cultural and political warrior, as Bassford is quick to point out throughout the film, is most clearly evidenced by the sheer will and grit of Mink, both through her presence and the indelible mark she left on others. But while Mink's achievements are articulated neatly, and her personality is palpable throughout her appearances in the film, the remaining structural and cinematic confines of the documentary seem to overly constrict, or at the very least muddle, the clarity and enormity of the life Bassford is attempting to illustrate.
While Patsy Mink may dwell on a strikingly original individual, Bassford's ode to her life is noticeably restrained and conventional. Aesthetically and structurally, the film resembles the traditional formulations of other recent PBS documentaries, a neatly packaged collection of images, interviews and insights that inform but do little to challenge or provoke (PBS Hawaii is a producing partner on the film, and Bassford has worked with the group previous to this film as well). Aside from a recurrent visual motif, of vague relevance, connecting the real-life struggles of Mink with those of a wandering young girl in a dream-like and Hawaiian pastoral revelry, Bassford does little to use non-diegetic sounds, images or concepts to enhance or elucidate the audience's understanding of this figure (as even Ken Burns did with his recent PBS series on Prohibition). While various interviewees in the film, including family and other well-known Congressmen, emphatically describe an overwhelming sense of struggle and angst that permeated Mink's early and later years, Bassford largely relies on a pedantic narration to note the importance of the various stages and achievements in Mink's life. By the end of the film, when Bassford shows Mink facing insurmountable challenges in the mid-1990s--the long-entrenched machinations of Congress and a newly resurgent Republican party--the original voice and force is missing from the film when it's most needed.
Patsy Mink's lifelong achievements, and more importantly her personality, are little known and mentioned in current political histories, and Bassford's film may help to remedy this. But for such a rambunctious and forceful individual, the format of the biopic seems deeply incongruous. While Mink broke seemingly insurmountable barriers in her quest for self-realization, the film version of her life constrains her narrative to conventional and commonplace forms. Bassford pleasantly and cleanly educates, but doesn't achieve, or fully attempt, to cinematically translate the essence and vivid spirit of the subject.
Michael C. Reiff
Onondaga Community College