'Monrovia, Indiana': Going Against The Caricatures Of Small Town USA

Frederick Wiseman's new documentary 'Monrovia, Indiana' gives viewers a look into the daily life of a small, rural town.

'Monrovia, Indiana': Going Against The Caricatures Of Small Town USA
Zipporah Films / "Monrovia, Indiana"

"Pawnee, the factory fire capital of America."

"Okay. Well, the truth is, I'm from Indiana—"

"Oh, okay. That explains why you're so basic. Say no more."

"Pawnee, it's safe to be here now."

"Why don't you put that on your 'Good Morning Missouri' [expletive] wake-up broadcast, [expletive].?"

"And our current slogan: 'Pawnee, first in friendship, fourth in obesity.'" 

The entertainment industry can be a breeding ground for caricatures and stereotypes, particularly when it comes to portraying small towns in America. 

Some caricatures are positive, like when small towns are portrayed to be wholesome and friendly. But others are more dismal — with portrayals of dying, post-industrial towns with not-so-pleasant residents. 

"Councilman Milton was first elected as a City Counselor in 1948 as a member of the Dixiecrat party. Their platform? De-integrate baseball."

This scene is clearly meant to be a caricature built from the trope of old people with racist tendencies, and the town where the comedy takes place is similarly built on the stereotypes of Middle America. 

These portrayals aren't inherently harmful, of course, and many shows like "Parks and Rec" do pair tropes with endearment and nuance.

But outside of fiction, how do you get the "real story" of small town America?

"If you want to get the real story, you need to get all the people in."

"Monrovia, Indiana" is a small, agricultural town with less than 2,000 people — and thanks to prolific documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the subject of a new documentary. 

"Small towns are, or at least were thought to be, the backbone of American life in one way or another — and still are important in American life. The only other movie I had made in the Midwest was about a public housing project in Chicago, and other than that I hadn't made any films."

"I made films in 17 states, and I hadn't done much in the Midwest. So, I wanted to work in the Midwest."

The Conner family of

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The documentary, like most other films by Wiseman, doesn't use any interviews or voice overs. The scenes are of real people in public spaces living their lives — almost as if Wiseman and his camera weren't there.

A review in The New York Times said the documentary "doesn't make an argument or tell a story. It's not trying to raise awareness of a cause or a problem, though awareness is its currency and its reward."

Other reviews, as well as the promotional material for the documentary, talk about the significance of red-state politics in relation to the film. But "Monrovia" doesn't really comment on national politics at all.

Wiseman prefers it that way. 

"I kind of resist cultural generalizations like that, because I'm — y'know, sure, I spent ten weeks in Monrovia, but I have no idea how similar or dissimilar, that is, to other small towns."

"I don't have an agenda in the sense that I hope [audiences] come away from the film with X, Y or Z thought. I'm not trying to get them to think any specific thing."

Because of that, there are no tropes or caricatures to see in "Monrovia" — just people and their town.

The documentary will begin rolling out nationally on Oct. 26.