Beto O’Rourke, Border Walls and the Shifting Reality of What It Means to Be Texan

The new documentaries 'Running With Beto,' 'The River and the Wall' and 'Ernie & Joe' challenge our impressions of modern-day Texas.

Beto O'Rourke in Running With Beto
Beto O’Rourke in Running With Beto. HBO

Most directors don’t find their next movie character standing atop a hay bale, sweaty and clay-dusted, in the seventh-inning stretch of a Texas amateur baseball game. Then again, most subjects worth filming aren’t Beto O’Rourke. Playwright-turned-documentarian David Modigliani discovered O’Rourke back in April 2017, before the former congressman became a national media darling or announced his 2020 presidential campaign. When they met, the pair were competitors—Modigliani’s Texas Playboys against the Los Diablitos of El Paso, who had O’Rourke at centerfield—but as the politician delivered a rousing stump speech in a nondescript sandlot, Modigliani believed he was witnessing “a generational political talent.”

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He soon proposed a behind-the-scenes documentary to O’Rourke and his team following their soon-to-be historic campaign trail through all 254 Texas counties as a means to unearth “what we [as Americans] hope politics could be.” Somehow O’Rourke agreed, even to Modigliani’s request that the film maintain financial and creative independence from the campaign.

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The result is Running With Beto, an enthusiastic and intimate doc that was picked up by HBO. Along with The River and the Wall and Ernie & Joe, two other documentaries that premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, Modigliani’s movie disassembles long-calcified mythos about the Lone Star State and how national audiences expect Texans to act, feel and think. Because as these films imply, underneath the reflexive branding of Texas as a tried-and-true red state teeming with nothing but conservatives and cowboys, a sensibility diverse in thought and opinion is surging.

In fact, a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll suggests a political conscience in Texas that would shock many outside the state: a majority that supports stricter gun laws and marijuana legalization, believes illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, and a Texas that doesn’t support Donald Trump’s wall. One poll doesn’t define a state, but it demonstrates that Texas, long considered a Republican stronghold, is changing. Of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the country, seven, including the top three, are in Texas, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. With large increases in minority and millennial populations, the “Next Texans,” as The Dallas Morning News calls them, are already influencing the state’s politics and priorities.

Specifically, Running With Beto depicts a dormant movement of liberal Texans that had been waiting for someone like O’Rourke to awaken them from their apathy. A 2018 Washington Post survey found Texas dead last among all states in voter turnout in midterm elections, which Modigliani attributes to malignantly gerrymandered districts. That, among other political maneuvers to consolidate conservative power, is why more moderate- to liberal-minded Texans “essentially have lost any sense that their vote matters.” What O’Rourke represented, regardless if he won or lost, was an agent of change for those Texans to believe again.

“In a way he pulled a lot of people out of the woodwork,” Modigliani told Observer. “The actual politics of the state in some ways are invisible because people are not engaged in the process. When someone like him gets people involved, it reveals what are actually the underlying political dynamics in the state.”

The doc hits all the triumphant notes of O’Rourke’s campaign, though it doesn’t always properly establish the stakes of those incredulous accomplishments. Modigliani assumes we already know that part of the story, as the audience at the documentary’s SXSW premiere did. They laughed and cried at the film’s emotional beats. More than anything, they clapped and cheered and hooted and hollered, their enthusiasm ranging from a form of catharsis to downright cartoonish. While in attendance, I wanted to, at least a couple of times, shout back, You know this guy lost the race for Senate, right?!

In light of O’Rourke’s lackluster launch to his 2020 presidential bid, Running With Beto can scan as a portrait of a man addicted to campaigning. Give credit to Modigliani, who showcases the highs and lows you get with O’Rourke—he cuts an inspiring figure, surely, but on what foundation does he lie, where are his policy objectives and what political gamemanship does he actually possess in Washington? The enduring image of O’Rourke in Modigliani’s film is of the congressman on the road, behind the wheel, in some indeterminate in-between Texas landscape. Where he’s going who knows, but at least he’s doing… something! And damn if that doesn’t feel like a metaphor for O’Rourke’s entire political existence.

But Running With Beto still successfully argues why O’Rourke might attract mass cabals of supporters, too. Interspliced among O’Rourke’s road tour are profiles of several Texans profoundly affected by his campaign, including activists that canvass door to door or petition for gun control. These people function as a “Greek chorus” for the doc, according to Modigliani, but that may be underselling it.

Amanda Salas, a Latina voter registration rights advocate living near the Mexico border, is the most poignant subject of these profiles. In supporting O’Rourke’s campaign, she’s somewhat exiled from her family of Trump supporters. We watch her navigate these newfound tangles of loved ones and politics ( familiar to any liberal unlucky enough to have a FOX News–loving Trumper among their relatives), sometimes successfully, other times not. Her sacrifice in backing O’Rourke is all the more heartbreaking knowing the race’s outcome. But when the bell tolls on his Senate campaign, she and the other activists only become more emboldened in planning next steps.

“Texas is a battleground state now,” Salas announces, and it’s an epiphany that was echoed in March by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Texas was “ground zero” in Democrats’ plans for the 2020 election.

But Texas can’t wait that long, argues conservationist filmmaker Ben Masters with his movie The River and the Wall, released theatrically earlier this month. The damage is being done now, thanks to Trump’s petulant insistence on building a wall along the Southern border. Constructing such a metal-concrete monstrosity, as has been argued, would curb drugs, criminals and illegal immigrants from entering the country. When Congress refused the funding Trump demanded to build the wall—an impetus driven by personal vanity more than border protection—he declared a national emergency, sparking the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Anyone who participates in this forsaken debate—including lawmakers, media members and U.S. citizens—should be forced to watch The River and the Wall before muttering another word. The film follows Masters, a West Texas native, and four of his friends as they travel all 1,200 miles of the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, riding bikes, horses and kayaks along the way. They meet with those living on the border to reveal how a wall would affect their way of life, and everyone from farmers to border patrol to legislators like O’Rourke and Rep. Will Hurd—a Republican—all respond negatively.

“People don’t really understand the border,” says rancher Steve Lamantia in the film. “They don’t take the time to come down here and look at it.”

Masters’ primary motivation, though, is to show “how a physical wall would have a lot of impact on wildlife species” and what Texans would lose by forfeiting already dwindling access to wild spaces. Less than five percent of the state is available for public recreation, the 45th worst allocation amongst all states, with big chunks of that percentage found along the border. A recurring motif throughout The River and the Wall is Texans’—and in a larger sense, Americans’—lost spiritual connection with our wild, frontier spirits. By mounting this wall, we are striking through the hearts of our ancestors, those who dared to explore the West, and denying ourselves the opportunity to replenish our souls with that expansive elixir only untamed nature provides.

In a scene that should drown viewers in melancholy, Masters and his team float down the Rio Grande River, which officially demarcates the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. The Mexico side is overflowing with vibrant play—children splash in the water, men reel in catfish for dinner and nighttime parties keep Masters’ team up at night. On the U.S side is the absence of all that. This section of the border already has a wall, and it looms menacingly, an artificial gray against a natural symphony of color. Its existence creates a veritable no-man’s-land; although no Americans can access the river or land, it’s still technically U.S. soil. It begs a question Masters hints at throughout the film: Is the wall a border against illegal aliens or ourselves?

As The Washington Post reported, this paradox of a no-man’s-land also means Central Americans only have to cross the river—not the wall—to legally seek asylum. Illegal border crossings, which the wall was supposed to deter in the first place, reached an 11-year high in February, thanks in part to this new loophole.

“It’s the most expensive and least effective way to do border security,” says Rep. Hurd, whose 23rd congressional district constitutes about a third of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

Finding new age approaches to policing neighborhoods outside the status quo of force and aggression is the focus of Ernie & Joe, a visceral portrait of two San Antonio cops revolutionizing how law enforcement responds to people in crisis, set for release this fall. Ernie and Joe help comprise San Antonio’s 10-person mental health unit, which works to divert would-be convicts out of jail and into treatment facilities.

Ernie & Joe
Ernie & Joe subjects Ernie Stevens, left, and Joe Smarro, right, of the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health unit. Matthew Busch

Their techniques are radical as they subvert virtually every fear minorities or those with disabilities have come to expect when dealing with cops. Ernie and Joe wear plainclothes, they rarely draw their guns and they engage in active listening. They openly seek connection with potential lawbreakers, transforming shakedowns into sidewalk therapy sessions. They are the first to admit, “I’m scared,” or, “You’re worrying me. Can you put the gun down so we can talk?” When a 911 call reports one mentally ill patient threatening to shoot herself in her driveway, the rest of the force shows up with assault weapons and battering rams; Joe arrives and asks if anyone has tried calling and talking to her yet. He does so and is immediately successful in de-escalating the situation, persuading the woman to drop the weapon and have a private conversation with him about what’s going on.

Some viewers will be stunned that this is all happening in Texas, the state with open-carry laws and “come and take it” attitudes. But Ernie and Joe, as well as other officers on their team, don’t need to don gruff, tough-guy personas to successfully do their jobs.

“I have authority, but I actually just want to exercise my right to figure out how I can help,” Joe told Observer. Though their crisis intervention work was mocked at first—some Texas cops disparaged it as “hug-a-thug training”—their methodology represents the “future of policing,” Joe says.

“I chose to do this documentary in part because it was a Texas story,” Ernie & Joe director Jenifer McShane told Observer. “As someone who grew up in New York City, and you probably could say the same about L.A., we look at the whole middle of the country and don’t always know exactly what we’re talking about. I think this felt counterintuitive for people— like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. You said it’s, like, progressive and it’s innovative and it’s in Texas. Really?’”

Viewers will likely react similarly to Running With Beto and The River and the Wall, but all three documentaries reflect a shifting reality. “He wants to turn Texas into California!” Ted Cruz decries in Running With Beto, a popular fear-mongering refrain from Republican officials in the Lone Star State. But maybe it’s Cruz and his ilk who don’t understand what it means to be a Texan anymore. Watching these films might teach them.

 Running With Beto premieres May 28 on HBO.

Beto O’Rourke, Border Walls and the Shifting Reality of What It Means to Be Texan