The latest volley in the cinematic culture wars is a clunky, but essentially-competent polemic in favor of school vouchers.
In the months leading up to the 2016 election, conservative writer and director Dinesh D’Souza released his polemic Hillary’s America, a “documentary” on the “secret history of the Democratic party.” While the film did well financially for a documentary (it was the top-grossing doc of 2016), it was almost universally panned by critics as blatant partisan propaganda stuffed with conspiracy theories. As the United States begins to head in another contentious election cycle, it appears that conservatives are again using movies to promote their policies. with R. J. Daniel Hanna’s film Miss Virginia, the result is a much more milquetoast affair.
Rather than go after a specific candidate, the topic of Hanna’s film is school vouchers — essentially, a system of using public money to send kids to private schools. It’s long been a pet cause for many American conservatives, with President Trump appointing voucher advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education and even releasing a plan to expand the voucher system this year. With Miss Virginia, we now have a movie on this very subject, the first narrative film from Moving Pictures Institute (MPI), a production company funded in part by the Republican megadonor Mercer family (though MPI asserts that donors do not have control over film content).
Based on the story of Virginia Walden Ford, Miss Virginia is a fictionalized telling of the passing of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a program championed by Walden Ford that provides publicly funded scholarships for low-income students in DC to attend privately owned schools. Set in 2003, the film follows Virginia Walden (Uzo Aduba, Orange is the New Black), a poor single mother whose son James (Niles Fitch) is struggling in his neighborhood school. After James is suspended for fighting, Virginia enrolls him in a private academy and takes on a cleaning job for DC Congresswoman Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis) to help foot the bill.
James immediately begins to thrive in his new school but is forced to drop out when Virginia can’t make enough to pay for tuition. At the end of her rope, Virginia upends one of Townsend’s townhalls, demanding to know why she can’t get money to send her son to the private school. Virginia enlists the help of Congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine) to help pass legislation providing a voucher program for DC residents. While Virginia is leading a grassroots movement, without the stimulation of private school, James begins to work for a local gang.
Ideology aside, Miss Virginia is a pretty by-the-numbers inspirational movie. Hanna presents the well-worn trappings of inner-city poverty: dilapidated public schools, gangs, and drug-addicted parents. We watch a single mother with a troubled child succeed despite the odds posed against them. Aduba brings a strong performance as Virginia, giving the character a wide emotional depth and presence on screen. Honestly, Aduba is too good of an actor for this movie. Virginia is presented too one-dimensionally as a righteous force, and it would have been compelling to see Aduba given the opportunity to bring more nuance to her character.
Through the latter acts of the film, we watch James fall into the gang life his mother is working so hard to give him the opportunities to avoid. When she discovers what her son has been up to, we only see Virginia react to his actions. There is no period of Virginia wondering how she could have not seen her son’s struggles while she was wrapped up in her own cause, the type of scenario that would have given Aduba some true internal conflict to work with. As it was, the only personal struggle Virginia is given is a “fear of public speaking,” which she seems to overcome quite easily.
Ideology aside, Miss Virginia is a pretty by-the-numbers inspirational movie.
Consistent through the film is the idea that government just “doesn’t work.” We watch Virginia be stymied by Townsend’s endless promise for a better tomorrow if we just give school’s more money, and the bureaucracy of government. Ellis portrays Towsend as vengeful and power-hungry, the right’s apotheosis of a big-city liberal politician. The film doesn’t give Townsend an ideological reason to oppose school vouchers, only that it would be bad for her donor. This leads to one of the most ironic moments in the film, where Virginia decries someone speaking against the program in a meeting as a lobbyist – as if a program that gives public funds to private companies wouldn’t have lobbyists of its own.
In contrast to Townsend’s coldness, Modine’s Williams is an obnoxious “politician who hates politicians” conservative. Similar to how Townsend wasn’t given a substantial reason to be against Virginia’s cause, Williams isn’t given a reason to support it. He takes up the cause seemingly because he did something similar in Milwaukee and he likes to pass legislation. It’s an odd omission that he doesn’t have a monologue extolling the virtues of school vouchers. Rhetorically, it makes sense for Townsend to oppose the vouchers due to malice or personal gain, but it seems odd they don’t have Williams explain why they are a good idea. Even if it would have made the political subtext even more apparent, it would have at least provided the character with an apparent motive.
This is to say nothing of the movie’s dicey treatment of race, with the story eventually evoking that creakiest of tropes: the white savior. The two primary antagonists for Virginia are women of color: Alongside Townsend, there’s talk show host Sally Rae (Vanessa Williams), who brings Virginia on her show for a round of “gotcha journalism” in order to paint Virginia as Williams’ pawn.
While Virginia draws on support from the Black community in activism for the voucher program, there is an undercurrent of White paternalism from Williams being the one to actually get the legislation passed. When Virginia finds legislation drafted by Williams in Townsend’s trash, Townsend tells Virginia that Williams doesn’t want “people like us to do better.” Similarly, when Virginia introduces Williams to her community, they wonder if he can “represent people like us,” and Williams assures them that, even despite his considerably higher amount of wealth and Ivy League education, he can. In the end, by pitting a White male politician against a Black female politician, it gives the air of “old White guys will do what’s best for you, trust us,” especially by making Townsend seem so conniving.
The praise for, or vitriol against, Miss Virginia will inevitably be mostly based on the viewer’s feelings towards the film’s politics. This is no Atlas Shrugged: while far from spectacular, the filmmaking and script are of decent quality, and Aduba’s acting has enough pathos to pull you through Virginia’s journey. Moreover, by wearing its ideology so openly on its sleeve, the politics of the film will inevitably color the viewer’s appreciation of it.
Miss Virginia is currently available in theaters.