At the heart of What Is Democracy?, a documentary from Canadian American filmmaker/philosopher Astra Taylor, is a black American barber who is also an ex-convict. Ellie Brett is young, but he has already served nearly a decade in prison for what he describes as a bad decision. During his incarceration, he learned how to barber and, as a consequence, is now—in terms of the society he paid a big debt to—gainfully employed. He is interviewed while cutting, shaving, and sculpting the hair of this and that man. What makes his moment the heart of what this film is trying to express is a story he tells about being part of a hunger strike while he was in prison.
But before explaining what the hunger strike was about, he warns us that it may sound trivial, that it might not impress your common productive member of society. The protest did not have the grandeur of marching against gun control or for policies that address climate change. The big issues. Instead, the hunger strike was sparked by a library.
He and others locked up with him did not eat for months because the authorities threatened to close their library. What's amazing is that Brett believes this political action appears frivolous, nothing more than, to use words from Blade Runner, "tears in the rain." But when you think about the protest in the context of Taylor's documentary, which impressively and tellingly examines the status of US democracy, predominantly from the perspective of black Americans (from school students, to workers, to philosophers like Cornel West), you realize the protest was all about democracy. They understood what was at stake. Those prisoners were not criminals simply paying their debts—they were humans caught in a vicious feedback loop with politics as its source. The removal of the prison library corresponded to what Melle Mel described in his 1982 rap record The Message as a "bum education" in civil society. Those two (no library, underfunded public schools) cannot be dissociated.
The documentary's heart is made all the more clear when related to comments made by another interviewee—Silvia Federici, a thinker who is associated with the Italian Marxist movement autonomism, which emerged from the workerist movement of the 1960s. While examining panels of a 14th-century fresco (The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti) with the director in the council room of Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy, Federici explains that a part of the work concerns the punishment of lawbreakers.
But what kind of crimes did these chained and sometimes decapitated men commit? The mural does not tell us. They are just bad people. And that's that. But Federici and the director wonder: "Were their crimes just crimes, or were they political?" Connect that uncertainty with the black American barber, and we have the deepest understanding of democracy, not only in the age of Trump, but in the West as a whole. Exactly what constitutes a crime in an over-rich society? Poverty or an offense against the laws that protect and concentrate wealth? And is democracy possible in such a social condition? Extreme wealth next to extreme poverty? This doc, which is weirdly tranquil, explores not so much democracy but the roots of much of the misery in our one and only world.