Tim Kirkman's very personal documentary Dear Jesse is, in reality, a double portrait of two highly differing American men, himself and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Kirkman was initially drawn to Helms by the surface similarities of their lives. Both of them are from the same specific area of the South, both had a brother and sister, both were interested in journalism in high school, adoption figured in both men's lives. And, as Kirkman puts it, both are obsessed with gay men, although in highly different ways. The filmmaker journeyed from New York back to his North Carolina roots to record his feelings about the South and Senator Helms, as well as those of his family, friends and various citizens. He's returned with a straightforward, nicely diverse likeness of the country and its people that is highly informative and, at times, extraordinarily moving. Although some may cavil over the interjection of Kirkman's simultaneous personal trauma (involving a break-up with a lover who ultimately committed suicide), the structure works in terms of presenting the very real life and pain of a gay individual in the face of Helms' unceasing homophobic rant. (If anything, one actually wants more of Kirkman's later story rather than, say, those cozy scenes of a college reunion where classmates announce that they always 'knew' about him. The sketchiness with which he presents his tragedy, perhaps stemming from an objective desire for a becoming modesty, leaves you with unanswered questions.) What undoubtedly comes through, however, is Helms' incredibly long career as a spewer of hate and negativity, as well as the fundamental decency, startling eloquence and heart of many of Kirkman's interviewees who, unsurprisingly, do not support the man.
Helms, known as 'Senator No' for his virulent stance against reforms like race integration, abortion, arts funding, AIDS research and gay rights, emerges once more and for all time here as one of the darkest extant forces in America. As far back as 1950, his support of conservative Senator Willis Smith in what is described as one of the 'meanest and most racially divisive campaigns in the country's history' secured him a place at the political table. Riding on Nixon's coattails, he himself was elected to the Senate, where he's continued to be re-elected ever since, but never with more than 54 percent of the vote. Black poet Jaki Shelton Greene remembers his nightly TV editorials in the 1960s and the indelible impression his racist views made on her young mind. When asked if there was anything that could prevent Helms' re-election to office, retired school principal James McAfee, also black, provides the film's biggest laugh when he answers, 'Maybe death,' before waffling humorously over his response. Writer Allan Gurganus compares the face of Helms to that of a bunched fist. His verbal description of Helms' physiognomy effectively deflates the senator's vaunted power, but is as nothing compared to the discovery of a high-school newspaper which described Helms back in 1938 with the single adjective 'obnoxious.' Kirkman wonders aloud whether this early epithet might have had some devastatingly negative effect on a formative adolescent.
Recent germane incidents are investigated, like the notorious incident at the White House when guards donned rubber gloves during the visit by various gay politicians (recounted by Mike Nelson, Mayor of Carrboro, N.C., the first openly gay elected official in the state), or the protests over a production of Angels in America that brought the controversy over arts funding to the fore. Nelson pertinently describes Helms as a 'brilliant' politician for his ability to emotionally whip prospective voters into a frenzy, while bemoaning his choice to use this gift for evil rather than good. Smaller, but no less important, events are also covered, like the successful protest of some 500 students against Helms' delivering a commencement speech at Appalachian State University.
Kirkman took the trouble to interview Helms' supporters, as well. They seem to express the same, somewhat herdlike opinion that their belief in him stems from the fact that he means what he says (however much they may personally differ from those views) and is, therefore, that rarity, an honest politician. Political columnist Hal Crowther effectively breaks down Helms' voting base into three groups of varying levels of ignorance. A number of interviewees, including a pair of recently 'married' lesbians, marvel at his support of semi-automatic weapons and tobacco lobbies which kill people, while denying the love of two human beings, not to mention access to medical care by those already afflicted with a deadly disease. Two mothers, co-founders of MAJIC (Mothers Against Jesse In Congress) whose sons both died of AIDS, recount their political evolution, as well as Helms' despicably unfeeling response to their letters questioning his stance against AIDS funding and ubiquitous demonization of people like their dead children. Helms disclaimed any personal feelings against homosexuality, saying he only believed what his Bible told him, and expressed regret that a son would choose to play Russian Roulette with his sexuality. Patsy Clarke's simple, heartbreaking statement of the undying pride she feels for her son alone makes this deeply thoughtful film worth seeing.