Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Best For Day : The Most Hated Family in America

You've probably heard of the Phelps clan, even if you don't realize it. They're the family that make up The Westboro Baptist Church, a religious order that gets straight to the theological point on their webpage The Westboro Baptist Church is well known for picketing burial services, usually those of downed soldiers and gays killed in hate crimes, but the group has also popped up in seemingly politically neutral places like Walter Cronkite's funeral in July. The founder, Fred Phelps, was a TV talkshow regular in the 90s, but is now an old man. His daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is the one you'll see on Larry King Live and Fox News these days. The church recently paid a visit to Fort Greene to “teach the rebels of Brooklyn what good looks like, and you had better behave.” and were met with chants of "suck my dick" from local high school students.

Their blunt and frankly offensive preaching style makes them an easy group to hate, which makes them ripe fodder for documentary. "The Most Hated Family in America" follows Louis Theroux as he lives with the Phelps family in Topeka, Kansas, trying understand the people behind the signs and chants.

The film reveals the Phelps to be a wholesome, close-knit family suffering from mass psychosis. In non-hysterical moments, Shirley Phelps is a really good mom who cares about her children a great deal. Her oldest daughter, Megan, seems to struggle the most with her family's one-of-a-kind belief system. At 21, she's enrolled in college and exposed to what she is missing out on by staying in the church. Megan seems the most likely to bolt the scene and is quick to shut down questioning when Theroux digs too deep. The only member whose beliefs seem unshakable are Fred Phelps himself, the wellspring of crazy in this extended family. He plays the senile card to his advantage and, it goes without saying, holds a cult leader's grip on the 70 members of his church.

"The Most Hated Family in America" is as funny as it is disturbing and at times heartwarming. One of the few members of the church who is not a Phelps family member is Steve Drain. A documentary film maker who, like Theroux, came to live with the Phelps to better understand them, became one of them. It is Drain who takes the viewer through the church's awesome sign production room. The signs he pulls from their inventory are lust worthy for anyone who gets camp: "FAG LOVER LIZ", "DYKE MARTINA", "ROYAL IN HELL" (each with photos of Elizabeth Taylor, Martina Navratilova and Princess Diana) would all make fabulous conversation pieces in a home. And "NO TEARS FOR QUEERS" and "JEW FAGS" tie for most catchy.

The hour-long film will make you rethink the Phelps. Once you get inside their homes and take a peak inside their heads, they are much more human and therefore impossible to simply hate. The Phelps are a family trapped in multi-generational crazy; "Grey Gardens" living on a national stage if you will. "The Most Hated Family in America" is a brief look at one of the nation's zaniest families and a sincere pick for best for day.

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