A review of “America Lost” (Written, narrated, and directed by Christopher Rufo, NR, 80 minutes, Documentary Foundation, 2019)

Describing a Lost America, But Not Helping It

Over the past few months, the idea that riots represent the bona fide voice of the unheard more or less has become the only acceptable perspective in the media and the public square. People are oppressed by systemic factors, so they’re expressing their frustration in the only way they can. But in his 2019 documentary “America Lost,” Christopher Rufo travels to some of America’s poorest communities to hear ordinary people expressing their frustrations—and what they want is not violence but the ability to live their lives in safety and dignity.

If anything, the people living in cities like Youngstown, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee, and Stockton, California would be the ones most justified in rioting. The industries that provided them with stable, well-paying jobs have disappeared. City authorities are largely content with throwing money at benefits programs instead of making any serious efforts to create new opportunities for people. But admirably, these people simply carry on, trying to make the most of their situations and lead dignified lives.

Rufo makes the case that government cannot revitalize these communities, and that it’s up to the people there to restore dignity and social order by strengthening their faith and their families. He describes the “gauntlet of failed schools, failed prisons, and failed social programs” that keeps people just barely surviving, but unable to improve their situations. He points out that “the family has broken all the way down” and that men have been “displaced from their traditional roles,” leaving the government as a reliable but uncaring provider. He proves beyond any doubt that decades of the same approach haven’t produced results.

All of this is true, and the documentary shows that the people of Youngstown, Memphis, and Stockton don’t really expect the government to solve their problems. But “America Lost” doesn’t make a compelling case that faith, family, and belief “in the old moral order” are enough. 

We don’t see individual efforts achieving results on the scale that’s necessary to revitalize an entire city, and the faith-based rehabilitation programs that Rufo documents, while admirable, achieve mixed results. The Memphis single mother who says that she relies on faith to protect her and her children from gangs and drug dealers is brave, but faith alone didn’t stop criminals from burning down a house next to hers and killing her dog. The Youngstown bartender who has to donate blood for additional income likely will be stuck in her situation, no matter how moral a life she leads.

The documentary does an excellent job of showing the consequences of deindustrialization and societal decline. Where it falls short is in explaining how these things happened. 

Besides a passing reference to automation killing some agricultural and industrial jobs in Stockton, the viewer is left with the impression that some force of nature simply swept the factories away. Rufo misses an opportunity to explain how mechanization, globalization, and other trends threw the people he interviews into their present circumstances. 

In Memphis, Rufo points out that black families actually flourished under segregation: “90 percent of black men held down jobs and supported families.” Today, he says, “the old order has been turned upside down” and “the streets have been taken over by gangs, drugs, and incredible violence.” 

There’s something of a disconnect here: what sort of a societal force could replace segregation and then result in a 46 percent unemployment rate among black men, a 77 percent rate of single motherhood among black women, and a massive spike in violence and crime? Whatever caused such a calamity would have to have been orders of magnitude more destructive than segregation. Alas, the documentary doesn’t offer a comprehensive answer.

Perhaps “America Lost” is meant to focus exclusively on the human aspect of the tragedy of the American heartland. In that respect, the film is thorough, thought-provoking, and chilling. But the proposed solution—change that comes from “within each individual human heart”—feels like an insufficient response to large-scale problems like industrial collapse and gang violence. 

Maybe there isn’t a solution, and dignified living in the face of steady decline is the best option most of these communities have. If so, it’s unlikely that any of us have any good answers.

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About Chris Nagavonski

Chris Nagavonski is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. who specializes in Eastern European affairs.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images