In retrospect, perhaps the surprising thing isn’t that Roseanne Barr ran for president — it’s that it wasn’t a bigger deal. After all, if you told anyone back in 1990 or so that Roseanne was gonna run for president, they’d probably lose their minds, as you would if Amy Schumer or Louis C.K. decided to run today. That’s how big she was; her eponymous sitcom was the number one show on television, she was splashed across magazine covers, and she was one of the biggest stand-up acts in the country. And yet, in 2012, she lost the Green Party nomination to Dr. Jill Stein. Who? Exactly.
The story of that campaign is told in Eric Weinrib’s new documentary Roseanne For President (screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival), which tracks her unsuccessful Green Party bid and ultimate campaign for the Peace and Freedom Party. It looked, at first, like a joke campaign or a PR sham, though as she notes at a rally early in the film, “I’m not running as a publicity stunt, since my political views have pretty much ended my career anyway.” She offers up a more succinct explanation for the effort later in the film: “If it feeds my need to fuck over fascists, I’ll do it.”
She is, to put it mildly, not a typical candidate, and not really an ideal one. She curses like a sailor, smokes pot frequently, and has a short fuse and documented mental problems. She’s not much for the glad-handing part of campaigning: “I hate to be around people, and touch them,” she confesses. And her speeches, while fiery, have a tendency to wander into hyperbole and paranoia.
But she was also one of the few candidates pushing for a legitimately progressive agenda: her platform addressed single-payer healthcare, income inequality, and marijuana legalization. Or, as she puts it to a music festival crowd, “WE WANT MARIJUANA FUCKIN’ LEGAL!” You gotta give her this much: she still knows how to play to a crowd.
Director Weinrib makes some wise choices, particularly with regards to her biography; he weaves in the archival footage like flashbacks, putting in enough to remind us of exactly how big she was, but not so much to overtake the movie. (We remember who she is; that’s why we’re seeing the film.) That said, a lot of the more troublesome stuff in her past gets left out, and he seems reluctant to press on some of her wilder statements, though he does use on-screen graphics to occasionally (and entertainingly) call her on her bullshit.
It’s worth noting that Barr is credited as executive producer for the project, though in a Q&A following the film’s premiere at Tribeca Saturday, she claimed her involvement in the final product was fairly minimal. “I think that I gave Eric a wide berth, and I called him back from the edge several times,” she said, but told Weinrib, “I like the movie that you made. Y’know, there’s things that I… I’m sure you’ll hear from my lawyers afterwards…”
Roseanne did see the work in progress, though she cracked, “He tried to wait ‘till the end, until I couldn’t do nothin’ about it… I told him, ‘I don’t want you to put any of me smoking pot in there,’ because I thought that would insult the people who voted for me. But in the end I ended up letting him show it. And if I go to fuckin’ prison, man, it’s your ass.”
Those flourishes aside, the real takeaway from Roseanne for President — beyond personality documentary, behind campaign chronicle — is that the main thing Barr stood for as a candidate was the one thing all of her celebrity and/or notoriety couldn’t muster: an actual additional choice on the ballot, a viable alternative to the bought-and-sold two-party system. In the Q&A, I asked her if we’re just plain screwed; it speaks volumes to her ultimate faith in the power of the people that even after the experience, she’s still optimistic.
“Well that’s kinda why I wanted to make this movie,” she explained, “because I wanted to tell people: you can have whatever you want. You can get it if you really want it, but you have to try and try and work towards it. This country’s in bad trouble because the one thing that can get it the fastest is if we all, like, unite across these different divisions that they put up for us — and they’re all artificial, except class. If we could all unite across those differences, man, we’d have exactly what we wanted real fast… So I wanted this movie to encourage you all to participate in the democratic process. Because it works, if you get in there and work it. Just like AA.”
Roseanne for President screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.