‘Fear of a Black Republican' explores GOP's complicated relationship with African-American voters

Filmmaker Kevin Williams questions now former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele about Republican Party participation in urban areas. (Credit: Shamrock Stine Productions, LLC)
Filmmaker Kevin Williams questions now former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele about Republican Party participation in urban areas. (Credit: Shamrock Stine Productions, LLC)
Posted: June 13, 2012

SOME YEARS ago, New Jersey resident Kevin J. Williams asked local party officials for presidential campaign material to distribute in his neighborhood.

The material was cheap and widely available, but party officials said no. Why? Well, it has something to do with race — Williams is white, he's Republican; his Trenton neighbors are mostly black, mostly Democrat, and the campaign material touted candidate George W. Bush. Party officials considered it not only a waste of time, but possibly inflammatory — a "riled-up" Trenton electorate might turn out to vote Democratic — out of spite.

Williams, a budding filmmaker, was curious to know why his party wouldn't even attempt to engage black voters, and turned that curiosity into "Fear of a Black Republican," a documentary of impressive sourcing that screens on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Pearl Theatre.

The film begins with a history lesson that shows how African-American voting patterns changed over time, how the party of Abraham Lincoln lost its hold on the black vote through President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Depression-era work programs, President Truman and the integration of the armed services, and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who advocated for the release of jailed civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. when opponent Richard Nixon refused to do so.

Kennedy's campaign issued what's known as the "blue bomb," blue pamphlets distributed at black churches on the eve of the election pointing out the disparity between Kennedy's and Nixon's support of King. Williams tracked down one of the pamphlets at the Kennedy library, and features it in the movie.

"Every black Republican I talked to knew that story. None of the white Republicans did," Williams said.

Williams then turns to recent history — Republican outreach to the black community, mostly via the Bush administration and former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, interviewed here, along with Ann Coulter, Grover Norquist, Michelle Malkin, Mitt Romney, and former Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. We get a look at how African-Americans feel about this outreach through Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, even former Eagle Gary Cobb.

The movie's most interesting "get," however, may be a Georgia House hopeful named Catherine Davis, a black woman running as a Republican in a heavily black, Democratic district. She begs for support from party officials, and gets little — one staff volunteer is told, when making get-out-the-vote calls, not to mention her name in conjunction with prominent Republican candidates. Rhetoric about outreach is popular and easy, financial and staff support at ground level something else — something Williams felt when he asked for simple door hangers for his Trenton neighborhood.

How has making the documentary changed his views?

"I'm not nearly the romantic I was," Williams said. "I'm not a fan of the idea that both parties are evil, but you see that what's best for the party is not always what's best for the people."

Learn more about Williams' movie at fearofablackrepublican.com. n

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.

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