Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family review – a deeply uncomfortable watch

This follow-up film about the supremely intolerant Westboro Baptist church finds plenty to be outraged by, but it also veers into exploitation

Just as you did with his previous visits, you need to brace yourself before watching Louis Theroux’s return to Topeka, Kansas to see how the Westboro Baptist church – the folk who picket US soldiers’ funerals with placards reading “God Hates Fags” in protest at their country’s tolerance of homosexuality – are getting on. Surviving America’s Most Hated Family (BBC Two) was his exploration of whether things have changed since founder Fred Phelps (known as Gramps to the rest of the church, largely made up of those with his own fervid blood running through their veins) died five years ago.

The short answer is – no, not enough to make a meaningful difference. Not enough to lift them out of the category of hate-group. Not enough to stop you wanting to weep at the contortions of logic and perversions of thought that can be followed in the name of God. The worlds of pain inflicted by this – on others, usually – still open up behind their words almost every time a member speaks. For instance, a new family – the Jacks – has joined forces with the Phelpses, and one of the father’s four children explains that they left their mother behind four years ago when he was 13. He doesn’t really miss her because, “She claims she loves me but by the standard of God she hates me. Because she doesn’t tell me the truth – that if I don’t obey God, I’m gonna go to hell.” His favourite placard is “God still hates fags”.

The preaching in their chapel does seem to have softened since Gramps departed and was replaced by a council of elders. You wonder if this is as much a product of their inability to match the potency of his oratory – and footage of him from Theroux’s previous visits in 2007 and 2011 reminds us how uniquely horribly gifted he was – than a desire to dilute its toxicity. The family still picket as strenuously as ever, and seem to feed off the outrage of passers-by. On the other hand, Theroux hears a persistent rumour that Gramps died excommunicated after shouting “You’re good people” at the gay rights charity HQ across the street. Did dementia strip him down to a better man at the core? Was it a moment of simple madness that meant nothing? Or was it, of course, demonic possession? It seems clear, however, that something has shaken members. Is the gentler preaching a sign that cracks in the certainties upon which Gramps’s church was built are starting to appear? No one is willing to admit the event even happened.

Theroux stood his ground to an admirable degree with the noxious family – and with Steve, a documentary-maker who, unlike Theroux, was so impressed with what he found at the church when he came to film it a few years ago that he joined up. What has always marked the Westboro Baptists out is the aggression with which they approach everything, the instant access to fury they all have and the readiness to beat down anyone, especially those who press points in the way Theroux does, with verbal violence. Steve shares this ability in full. This is a family of bullies, blood-related or not.

Less admirable is Theroux’s treatment of Megan, daughter of Shirley (one of the most committed and unforgiving members of that committed and unforgiving group) and granddaughter of Fred. She escaped the church a few years ago after finding a community of people on Twitter who gave her the confidence to question her lifetime of indoctrination, and has built a life without contact with her outraged family since. He reduces her to tears – as he must surely have known he would – with the news that two of her siblings recently became engaged. This will make it that much harder for them to follow her example and, in all likelihood, means that she will never see them properly again. We see the chasm of grief opening deeper and deeper in her in real time. It is profoundly uncomfortable to watch and, for me, errs firmly on the side of exploitation – which is not, generally, Theroux’s stock-in-trade.

The testimony of more than one new member that it was Theroux’s earlier documentaries that drew them to the church also raises questions about the ethics of giving publicity to Westboro. They are hateful, repellent, appalling in every conceivable way, and they cause a misery that far outweighs their number. But still, that number is small, and its impact, in the grand scheme of things, remains so too. It’s hard to imagine the attention paid to their extremist tactics didn’t encourage them and increase the church’s influence. God help us.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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