What the Constitution Means to Me movie review (2020)

Captured in the final weeks of its 2019 Broadway run with thoughtfulness and elegance by Marielle Heller, “Constitution” is on the surface remarkably simple. (While Heller superbly directs the film, the stage production was helmed by theater director Oliver Butler with equal grace, skill, and insight.) Schreck plays herself, recounting the story of how she traveled the country as a 15-year-old, competing in constitutional debates in American Legion halls to earn scholarship money for college. When playing her younger self, she dons a yellow blazer and calls it a day; she tells her audience, who she asks to serve as the old white men she’d speak to during these events, that the set was conjured from her memory, but alas her memory forgot to include a door. It’s friendly, casual, not so much breaking the fourth wall as not bothering to put one up in the first place, and the lack of artifice underlines that approachable tone, as does Heller’s frank yet gentle approach behind the camera. We’re just talking, Schreck seems to say with each choice; we’re all just here talking, no big deal.

But it is a big deal, and Schreck’s choice to forgo more grandly theatrical choices imbues “Constitution” with immediacy, vulnerability, and honesty. Dwelling largely on the ninth and 14th amendments, Schreck digs into the beauty, contradictions, and especially the failures of the United States Constitution by looking at it through several lenses: that of her at 15, at 20, as a young woman, a grown woman, as a daughter and granddaughter and great-granddaughter. (She is also, as she notes in one of the play’s best jokes, a big fan of men; “I’m the daughter of a father,” she deadpans, hand on heart.) It’s about her family history, and the history of the United States; it’s about what exclusion from the preamble has meant for her life, and what it means for women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and non-binary people—and particularly for trans women and women of color—every day.

Inevitably, the work that Heller’s film of “Constitution” will get compared to most frequently will likely be Thomas Kail’s film of the original cast of “Hamilton”—proximity of release, subject matter, and of course format all invite the comparison. (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Angelica Schuyler wants Thomas Jefferson to “include women in the sequel;” Schreck’s play asks whether the original needs a rewrite or if the whole thing needs to be canceled and rebooted with a new cast and script.) But in its approach it hearkens back much more to documentarian Jennifer Fox’s 2018 narrative feature “The Tale,” which chronicled Fox’s childhood sexual abuse by examining her own perspective and employing the tools of fiction to both add and remove personal distance. The past is past, the present is present, and both are constantly happening at once.

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