With the eyes of the nation once again on Florida as the potential arbiter of another close election – because they're all "close elections" now, even when they aren't – it's tempting to look back at the 2000 debacle that earned us the title of State Most Likely to Screw Up Democracy. The documentary 537 Votes does so in an entertaining, energetic fashion, although its focus is notably selective.
In a tightly reported and edited one hour and 44 minutes, the movie argues that the infamous Bush/Gore recount fiasco was actually the culmination of years of frothing anti-Castro sentiment on the part of Miami's Cuban community – or at least an extremely vocal portion of that community with inordinate access to talk radio and the corridors of political power.
The first act of the doc revisits the Elián González controversy, in which the Clinton administration ran afoul of Cuban-American conservatives by taking the surprisingly controversial stance that 5-year-old González should be returned to his father in Cuba rather than forced to stay with American relatives he hardly knew. The die was cast for payback at the polls, director Billy Corben suggests – OK, shouts through a bullhorn – and the fecklessness of Miami-Dade County's young Democratic mayor, Alex Penelas, was the match that ignited the kindling.
We're told that Penelas' unwillingness to alienate the more fanatical members of his constituency ultimately let him to look the other way as the infamous "Brooks Brothers Riot" of Nov. 22, 2000, saw the presidential recount shut down by a bused-in throng of well-connected political operatives. (Hey, there's Roger Stone! Wonder whatever happened to him.)
The cultural context is advanced via an intoxicating mixture of clips from late-night TV, morning news shows and South Park. (You'll be forgiven for having forgotten the degree to which Janet Reno kept them all in business.) And to support the notion that Miami was an only quasi-civilized hotbed of violent retribution, there's plenty of pumping Latin music on the soundtrack and more repetitions of the phrase "banana republic" than you'd hear in five trips to the mall.
The borderline racism is somewhat unsettling, to be sure, especially when one considers the aspects of the recount story 537 Votes chooses not to revisit. The film is so fixated on its central thesis that Miami Cubans enabled the dismantling of our free and fair elections process – leading, we're told, to the disasters of Sept. 11 and Operation Enduring Freedom – that it nearly ignores the crucial experiences of other communities.
Most surprisingly, the appearance of the infamous Katherine Harris is limited to a brief mention of the conflict of interest inherent in her dual roles as Florida's Secretary of State and co-chair of the George W. Bush presidential campaign here. There's no acknowledgement of her having purged the state's rolls in advance of tens of thousands of eligible voters, a disproportionate amount of them Black. The closest thing we get to the concept of anti-Black political persecution is a post-election-night exchange between Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes in which they bemoan white people's proclivity for fouling things up. Just which white people did that to which Black people, and how, is a matter Corben apparently can't be bothered with.
Admitting that the fix was in from the very start – and in a way that had nothing in particular to do with Miami – would deny 537 Votes a certain amount of its drama, but also its very specific grievances. Even if you can't dispute any of its individual assertions, the movie comes across as DNC revenge porn lobbed by one demographic at another, while the concerns of a third go largely unaddressed.
537 Votes ends on an ominous suggestion that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but you have to wonder if its self-styled hero-victims have fully ingested that lesson themselves.
This article first appeared at our sister publication Orlando Weekly.
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