One of the breakout stars of the 2020 election cycle was a young dad from Louisville, Kentucky: progressive representative Charles Booker, who took on the Democratic establishment candidate, Amy McGrath, in the primary. Both McGrath and Booker hoped to unseat Mitch McConnell, who happened to be up for re-election that year, a man whose been in the Senate for as long (37 years) as Charles Booker has been alive.
With McGrath already raking in millions of dollars in donations thanks to a campaign ad highlighting her experience as a fighter pilot, Booker undertook a socially-distanced bus campaign, a journey not just to win the primary, but also to unite Kentuckians across racial boundaries, with the common goal of ending poverty in the state, one of the poorest in the nation.
That journey is depicted in Pat McGee’s documentary “From the Hood to the Holler,” which takes its title from one of Booker’s campaign slogans. It’s also the title of his memoir and organization. It’s the Charles Booker brand – and a catchy one, too.
McGee’s film follows the traditional political campaign documentary template: There are the fly-on-the-wall observations of tense election-night war-room confabs, and MSNBC appearances conducted via Skype on a smartphone from a moving bus, as well as the soaring drone shots of Kentucky’s rolling green hills that make the film feel a bit like an expanded campaign ad. But then, Booker’s allies and colleagues start weeping in the talking-head interviews, and it becomes clear that this is not just a shiny piece of campaign propaganda for Booker, who is running again, in 2022, this time against Rand Paul.
“From the Hood to the Holler” is a surprisingly emotional film. It’s not just that Kentuckians feel sold out by McConnell, who is an institution in the state, and it’s not just that Louisville became one of the epicenters of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of Breonna Taylor. It’s not just about the voter suppression that McGee’s cameras capture on election day in June 2020, voters literally pounding on the locked doors of the polling center to make their voices heard.
It’s about all of that, and ultimately, the movie, and the movement it captures, is a reckoning with what Kentucky means and a direct address of the “assumptions and misconceptions” about the state. Fundamentally, it is a searing soul-search for a new Kentucky whose interests might actually be represented in the Senate. And it is all wrapped up and represented by this kid from the West End of Louisville whom no one thought would make it through law school.
McGee’s doc is structured so that it picks up momentum as Booker’s campaign does. Booker got a later start than McGrath, who is tapped by establishment Dems to take on McConnell, but he quickly picks up steam in the wake of his leadership during the charged Black Lives Matter protests in Louisville (which McGrath fumbles) and thanks to his passionate, forthright speeches, seen early on in an address from the floor of the Kentucky House of Representatives as he speaks out against a bill to ban abortion in 2019. Booker’s raw emotional power comes forth, and throughout the film we watch as he hones his personal storytelling to connect with voters on the campaign trail, from Louisville to Corbin, a former sundown town.
The film tumbles giddily though a montage of late-breaking endorsements, from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (truly the model for what Booker is doing in Kentucky), Elizabeth Warren and Hollywood power players like Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, Regina King and Kentucky’s own Jennifer Lawrence.
Some of the transitions are a bit stilted, and the film’s present-tense presentation feels awkward (the news itself is a spoiler). We know how the primary ends, but it is a nail-biter to the very end, nevertheless, from a last-minute injunction called in to beg judges to allow polls to stay open longer for those voters caught in traffic to the weeklong process of counting the mail-in votes. The drama provided in the last hours of Booker’s campaign is a true gift to the film’s climax, including an emotional and teary speech that he delivers to the voters on election night.
But despite the ending, which subtly argues that Booker was the inspiring and class-conscious candidate who might have the grassroots power to unseat McConnell, “From the Hood to the Holler” ends on a high note. It’s not just one film, or one election, or one win — it’s a movement, as the energized subjects keep repeating. “Justice is not a destination, it’s a journey,” is one of the many resonant quotes shared by one of Booker’s advisors and friends, and it’s a reminder that the fight is never-ending.
What comes through clearly is that, while Booker may have traveled from the hood to the holler, his goal is to bring those two places together, to erase those stereotypes, to find common ground. It’s not actually about the gulf between the hood and the holler, but what the hood and the holler might accomplish together that makes this moment, and this movement, so powerful.
“From the Hood to the Holler” opens in U.S. theaters Sept. 16 and on demand Sept. 30.