The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol underscored the precarious state of American democracy in a time of deep political polarization. But the Emmy-contending Apple Original Film Boys State offers some hope that bridging ideological differences remains a possibility.
The documentary directed and produced by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine focuses on an annual program in Texas where more than 1,000 high school boys gather for an exercise in mock government. Serious political differences emerge between the participants, but at least they keep engaged with each other.
“We went into the project with a question, which is can we find common ground in America?” Moss said during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “We thought Texas Boys State…would be a perfect laboratory to explore this question we’re all asking ourselves—what is our future as a country? Are we going to descend into civil war or find ways to work together? And I think we do find in this experiment, and through the leadership of young men like Steven Garza, a path forward in our politics and in our democracy and hopefully in our country.”
Garza, a Mexican-American from the Houston area, ran for governor of Boys State and attracted growing support, despite being much more liberal than most of the kids who took part in the program. Garza conceded it was a long shot for him even to be invited to attend Boys State, which is run by the American Legion, because of his so-so high school academic record.
“When I applied and had an interview to go to Boys State they basically grilled me for half an hour on my grades,” Garza recalled. “I had to convince them that my grades suffered because instead of doing my math homework I wanted to go to a political rally instead or go knock on doors or go to a fundraiser and [I] won them over and convinced them and they were basically like, ‘Prove us wrong.’ And I think I did.”
Garza, fellow Boys State gubernatorial candidate Robert MacDougall and rival party chairmen René Otero and Ben Feinstein are the four main characters in the documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2020. Feinstein, an ardent conservative, displayed a gift for bare-knuckle politics and was not above using dubious tactics to undermine Garza’s candidacy.
“Of course, what we saw a lot of as well was how much of the politics in Washington had trickled down to this younger generation and that’s dispiriting at one level,” McBaine said. “But also the fearlessness by which all four of our guys kind of navigated this very divisive politicking is also a reminder of what’s possible with democracy.”
In March, former President Bill Clinton invited Garza to be a guest on his podcast Why Am I Telling You This? Clinton participated in Arkansas Boys State as a high schooler in the 1960s and went to Washington in 1963 for Boys Nation, where he famously met and shook hands with then-President Kennedy. To Garza, chatting with the former Commander-in-Chief reminded him, “I think I’m on the right path.”
He’s attending the University of Texas at Austin now, and says he may run for elective office one day—although not in the immediate future.
“Not in the next couple of years, I don’t think so,” Garza said. “[But] I won’t shy away from the opportunity if there comes a time when I can step up to that plate.”
Check out the panel video above.
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