Released in 2009 but set in 2006, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” takes the viewer into the Midwest region, particularly Kansas, where left-wing political views have fallen from favor and conservative ideals have become the norm. The film focuses on three central characters.
Angel Dillard is the first of the three main subjects that we meet. Angel is a lifelong Republican activist and helps to run the Kansans for Life booth at the Kansas State Fair. Brittany Barden is an 18-year-old veteran of multiple Republican campaigns. She wants to return America to its roots as a “Christian Nation.” The third is Donn Teske, a self-proclaimed “red-neck Kansas farmer” who’s fighting to save his and other’s farms from corporate greed.
Perhaps the most relatable moment in the film, for me at least, was an interview with M.T. Liggett, an artist from Mullinville. Liggett is annoyed when talking about the subjects of gay marriage and abortion, responding with, “Who gives a shit?” He further elaborates, saying that he can’t relate to the arguments, so he felt unable to say one way or the other.
This seemed to me to be the most relatable moment when looking at the modern political climate, where moral issues still seem to dominate the political world, rather than the far more important financial issues facing the country.
Thomas Frank, the author of the book that the documentary is based on, makes an appearance, speaking at a book store and lamenting the days when Kansas was more liberal.
Another interesting subject of the film is Terry Fox, the pastor of Angel and Brittany’s church. Fox is forced to resign from his original church and quickly finds a new church in an old amusement park, and Angel follows him. Angel’s faith is shaken when, after she invests a great deal into the new church, the owner of the park disappears with hers and several other people’s money.
While the message of the film might seem apparent, it tended to get lost in translation. While we do get a large variety of subjects to observe and hear from, we never get to see a wider chain of causality with the whole movement. The film is definitely designed to portray Kansans and Midwesterners in a particular light of being ultra-conservative and just plain backwards in some cases and seems to have been created to justify stereotypes, rather than dispel them. A trip to the “Creation Museum” seems to have been included solely for the purpose of giving critics of the movement ammunition.
Overall, the film is interesting, but it seems almost pointless at times. It’s almost as though the film is whining about how something’s “the matter” with Kansans, but simply dwells on that one thought, rather than explaining where the change began, or where it might be going.