Wichita reacts to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”


The New York Times once cracked that “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” should really be called “What’s the Matter with Wichita?” The heart of the conservative movement in Kansas is here, in the state’s largest city: the mega-churches, Operation Rescue, and numerous Christian schools, including one which ponied up for Sarah Palin to fly in and speak for a fundraiser (although she drew a smaller crowd than expected.)

For audiences across the country, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is a fascinating journey into the heart of American conservatism, a place that for many of us is warmly familiar yet utterly foreign — in the best documentary fashion, the movie gets viewers close to people they don’t really know.

In Wichita, however, everybody feels they already know these folks, they are their neighbors.

Liberals in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. are fascinated and surprised to find out what conservatives are really thinking, and why the believe what they do.

Liberals in Wichita, sometimes just get irritated.

6 audience Wichita reacts to Whats the Matter with Kansas?

audience at the Wichita Public Library July 8, 2010

We just held a special screening of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” at the Wichita Public Library, on Thursday, July 8.

The movie had played in Wichita before — in fact, the first public screening of the finished film was at the 2008 Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita. It was a huge hit, selling out three screenings.  Many of the documentary subjects were in the audience (they’d all seen the movie and liked it very much.)  Our reflections and some photos are here.

Generally, Kansans in general and Wichitans in particular enjoy the movie for the same reasons everyone else does, with the added thrill of seeing their home town on the big screen.

But, at post-screening discussions, a few Wichitans react strongly to seeing evangelical Christians featured in a movie with Kansas in the title: Why do you have to show those people? Don’t folks in other parts of the country already think Kansans are backwards, ignorant, and overly religious?

Two years ago, Laura and I were taken aback.

This time, I was ready.

3 Joe speaks Wichita reacts to Whats the Matter with Kansas?

Director Joe Winston takes a question from the audience

“Look,” I replied, “whatever you worry that folks in New York thinking about you — they already think that.  They already associate this part of the country with narrow stereotypes of the evangelicals.  But until they see this movie, they don’t know about the progressive farmers movement, and the Kansas Populist tradition.  They don’t know about people like Donn Teske and M.T. Liggett, who are as whip-smart as anyone on the coasts.”

The discussion got livelier after that.  Kansans really know their history, and one woman reminded me that racism was a big factor in thwarting the original Populist Party in the late 1890s, as institutions like sharecropping pitted poor southern whites against poor southern blacks, with whom they had much in common otherwise.

Another blogger has quoted me here, when I reminded the crowd that rigid ideology is always a problem, no matter what the beliefs.

To be clear: Wichita gave the film a very warm reception, and even our critics were thoughtful and respectful.  They showed us what all documentary filmmakers should remember, that movies about real people’s lives have an impact, and are personal to those involved.

8 baby in the house Wichita reacts to Whats the Matter with Kansas?

Young viewers were welcome, and well-behaved


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Burley, Kansas Movie. Kansas Movie said: The reaction from Wichita: great movie, but we're a little embarrassed by it. http://fb.me/CY0WGppd [...]

  2. Jason Pelker
    July 10, 2010

    This narrative really sums up the experience of such a “controversial” (not really–but you understand) documentary.

    I’m very glad to read that Joe takes his audiences’ concerns seriously and hopefully, this dialogue will encourage positive actions from the audience to counter-balance the negative stereotypes that have embarrassed them in the past.

  3. B.H. Fairchild
    July 10, 2010

    I grew up in the dustbowl of southwest Kansas and in the early sixties attended the University of Kansas, where political liberals were abundant. I’ve read Frank’s book and very much admire it, but for contrast, you might look at little Girard, Kansas, which in the early 20th c. published the most widely subscribed socialist newspaper in the world and the famous little “Blue Books,” which introduced the Kansas working class (and many of my rural K.U. classmates) to Thoreau, Emerson, Marx, Engels, and other liberal and left thinkers. The ways in which contemporary Kansas fits the anti-intellectual, right-wing stereotype are no longer interesting; the ways in which it DOESN’T and HASN’T fit that stereotype are truly interesting.

    • What's the Matter with Kansas?
      July 10, 2010

      B. H., you’d be pleased to know that the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” movie features a visit to Girard and the Appeal To Reason / Haldeman-Julius Archives in Pittsburg, KS, as well as numerous references to Kansas’ progressive Populist history, including a visit to the Garden of Eden in Lucas.

  4. B.H. Fairchild
    July 10, 2010

    Thank you. I’m looking forward to the film.@What's the Matter with Kansas? -


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