The movie Red State received an extra dose of press at its opening night at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, in the form of protestors from the Fred Phelps’ controversial Westboro Baptist Church (so thoroughly infamous, they have their own, lengthy Wikipedia page). New York film critic and journalist Eric Kohn tweeted photos of the event:
Outside the RED STATE premiere, evil comes to Park City. And embarrasses itself. #sundance http://twitpic.com/3suqoj
More counter-protesters. #sundance http://twitpic.com/3sur41
In fact, the WBC protestors’ hellfire and brimstone hate speech dovetailed perfectly with the film’s content. In the words of reviewer James Rocchi, “Red State goes from Psycho to Westboro to Waco…” without missing a beat. Watch the trailer and see for yourself. (Note: NSFW)
As soon as WBC made its appearance in the region, a Red State counter-protest quickly formed, spurred on by the filmmakers. The Eccles Theater, where the film debuted, is part of the local high school and residents claim high school students were enlisted to swell the numbers of counter-protestors. It was “BYOS,” bring your own sign, and dozens did just that. So many people showed up, in fact, that the protestors were drowned out by music and the shouts of positive or silly slogans: “I love chocolate!” or “God hates your hat!” The protest was short-lived, but both sides made their point. And Smith’s movie enjoyed a measure of extra media attention.
The WBC has made a name for itself by spouting its vitriolic, anti-gay, anti-American, anti-everything-not-us rhetoric in more emotional venues: the funerals of soldiers, Elizabeth Edwards, and a New York plane crash victim; even a Palo Alto, CA high school plagued by a rash of teen suicides. They will sometimes cancel their protests in exchange for local radio air time. Increasingly, counter-protests like the one in Park City spring up to shield WBC’s signs and shouts from residents and victims’ families. One group of motorcyclists calling themselves the Patriot Guard Riders attends counter-protests and revs their engines to drown the Phelps’ songs and slogans.
The nation has seen in recent months that hatred has consequences—not only personal, but social and societal. It seems clear from a 2007 BBC documentary, as well as other interviews with Phelps, his family, and his estranged children, that this is a group of people who are being tortured by one man’s monomaniacal drive to beat the snot out of a nation the way he once beat his children. Knowing how the cycle of violence can spiral through generations, one wonders what Phelps himself was forced to endure as a child, and what his anger will create in coming years, as it continues to propagate through his family. One hopes the Reverend’s misguided sheep will find a kinder shepherd—before they themselves become lambs led to the slaughter. Hopefully, life-imitating-art won’t follow this film to its conclusion.
The movie has so far received mixed reviews, both from critics and from audiences. Director Kevin Smith (Clerks) allowed the actors some creative freedom, played fast and loose with the script, and attempted some genre-bending storytelling. According to the Sundance Film Festival Guide, “Red State is a shocking new kind of horror film that aggressively confronts higher powers and extreme doctrines with a vengeance.” This description turned out to be somewhat misleading. While the film does contain material of a shocking intensity, it’s not quite the “horror film” (in the traditional sense) that we were led to believe.
Smith’s bait-and-switch gambit, telling buyers he would auction the movie at the premiere, then ending the bidding with his own $20 call, seems to have upset the industry more than the film’s content. His intent all along was to independently screen the film between now and October, so he can recover investors’ costs without losing money to big-budget, Hollywood promoters (ticket sales begin Friday, Jan. 28 and each could sell for $60 a head).
One question remains: Did Smith purposely “plan” this protest by inciting the WBC, knowing they’d arrive on cue to defend their position?