Boys State: Get Out!
The horror genre expands with Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Boys State, as one thousand hypermasculine teenage boys convene for a summer of political and legislative education in Texas. Despite its surface level semblance as an endearing coming-of-age story, Boys State reflects the real discrimination present in the United States with harmful and misplaced patriotism. If The Blair Witch Project or The Conjuring did not scare you enough, Boys State is guaranteed to suffice.
From the first act of Boys State, the predominant narrative is rooted in a white, masculine perspective. The American Legion, defined by its zealous patriotism, becomes the primary setting in the first minutes of the documentary, as the boys interview one-by-one for a chance to attend the week-long exercise in self-governance. A sense of ubiquitous whiteness permeates everywhere: from the decor of the interview room to the cluster of white veterans in power. Upon the characters’ arrival at the Boys State camp, the camera looms over a sea of identical white shirts and white faces as a deliberate mechanism to underscore the lack of diversity. Boys State utilizes uniformity as a horror device; think Grady twins from The Shining, but more racist.
Therefore, the entrance of people of color in Boys State startles viewers and provides for mounting suspense that characterizes the film as a horror movie. Black and Brown individuals are invasive species in this setting, forced to interact with an unfamiliar landscape like the unsuspecting grandchildren in The Visit (minus the murder). The documentary becomes even more frightening as it evolves into a social experiment about power, with one camp member outlining the clear goal of the program: “pressure the Federalists into absolute submission!” Boys State essentially becomes a digestible Stanford prison experiment— just with a few more American flags thrown about.
In a more terrifying twist of events, the marginalized individuals throughout Boys State are too oblivious to even recognize their powerless situation. As if a homage to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the attendees of color at the summer camp are so trapped in their own psychological sunken place, they actually feel equal to their peers. Ignorance blinds the students of color in the program.
Rene Otero, the token Black student official in the documentary, claims Boys State “is not a conservative indoctrination camp”, but sheds his progressive views in a heartbeat to assimilate under a more “bipartisan” train of thought. As an elected official, Otero finds the greatest success when he vocalizes the rhetoric of his white constituents, even against his own personal values. In the decision to compromise his integrity to appease the white masses, Otero exists as a puppet for the white majority despite his executive leadership role.
The depiction of Steven as an additional minority perspective in the documentary exposes the alienation that contributes to the horror of the Boys State. From the start, one of the chaperones ostracizes Steven for not arriving to camp with his parents. The deliberate emphasis on Steven’s family dynamic, contrasted with the numerous shots of happy white children with both their moms and dads, reflects the division between attendees of color and those that are white. Some might call Steven’s arduous pursuit for Governor of Boys State inspiring, but I find it tragic. Steven embarks on a tiresome mission for white affirmation throughout the whole film and ultimately loses… as if he did not see it coming.
The white characters, particularly Ben and Robert, serve as foils to the students of color. The hustle and determination of Rene and Steven contradicts the motives of Robert who, “bought some Bitcoin, totally forgot [he] had it, and used it to buy some new boots!” Robert is a villain of American Psycho proportions, masking his discriminatory political agenda with good looks and a nice smile.
He runs on a campaign against abortion at an all boys camp, despite being pro-choice himself, and garners massive support from his enraptured peers. For a second, despite having little constructive skills, Robert becomes the undeclared leader of the cult (or summer camp—it’s your interpretation). It’s Midsommar with way more toxic misogyny.
Ben’s privilege is not exposed through his lack of motivation like Robert, but rather the complete opposite. His racism is emanated through his overambition. Seeking to become the Governor of Boys State with unanimous support, Ben promotes the notion that skin color is baseless: “I don’t think of myself as white; I think of myself as American.” Ben’s rhetoric is dangerous because it separates whiteness from its historical context of racism in this country, and absolves Ben of his own personal white guilt. His attempts to unite the boys at the camp sow more seeds of disunion and contribute to the overall terror of the program.
Horror movies are defined by the atmosphere; the greatest horror films elicit fear with a dark, sinister aura that sends chills up your spine. The very white, patriotic setting of Boys State, combined with the fervent Federalist vs. Nationalist pride, conveys an Antebellum sympathy that creates an atmosphere marred in veiled confederate romanticism.
In their attempts to distance themselves from the standard Republican/Democrat divide, the Boys State program tapped into a political history that dates back to the 1780s-- a time period where Black people were still considered three-fifths of a human. And, as a Black dude myself, I can’t really think of an atmosphere more scary.
Some people fear monsters, others fear sadistic stalkers. I fear racists. Boys State is an example of the new renaissance in the horror genre, as it conjures fear through its application of subtle discrimination rather than typical elements of gore and action.