In 1983, T.D. Allman wrote a book called Miami: City Of The Future, which introduced the world to the saying “The Miami of today is the America of tomorrow.”
It’s a phrase that can be either hopeful or fearful, and documentarian Billy Corben, along with his producing partner Alfred Spellman, have essentially adopted it as their career mantra. Since 2001, the duo have documented “Florida f*ckery” throughout 13 documentaries, from Cocaine Cowboys to The U to 2018’s Screwball, all of which to varying degrees posit that South Florida is both a metaphor and a cautionary tale for America at large. Along the way they’ve essentially become, as I like to think of it, the Mark Twains of insane Floridiana.
In that sense, their latest, 537 Votes, premiering October 21st on HBO, is a culmination of sorts. It’s an examination of the peculiar and extremely Floridian circumstances that gave us first a contested presidential election in 2000 and eventually a dubious “victory” for George W. Bush — by the infamous factor of 537 votes. As Corben puts it, we’ve been “living in the epilogue” of that moment ever since.
“As we’ve chronicled South Florida over the years, ‘Miami of today is the America of tomorrow’ has rung true more often than not,” Spellman says. “537 Votes is probably the best encapsulation of that, because Miami of 2000 certainly looks like the America of 2020.”
And what did Miami of 2000 look like? It was place polarized by the Elián Gonzalez case, riven with internal conflicts, and ruled by a minority, in the form of the (largely rightwing) Cuban-American exile community. It was the scene of the infamous “Brooks Brothers Riot,” a Republican political stunt influencing a presidential election victory that was first called (mistakenly) by a Bush cousin at Fox News, legalized through a deciding vote by a justice appointed by Bush’s father (Clarence Thomas), and certified by Bush’s Florida campaign manager, Katherine Harris (in her capacity as Florida’s then Secretary of State). And how we got there is a story all its own, involving one young refugee, Cuban-American talk radio, a shady judicial power broker, and Miami’s then-on-the-rise Democratic star mayor Alex Penelas — whose failure to provide security allowed Republican operatives to own the streets, shouting and intimidating their way to a political victory.
The strength of Corben-Spellman films is their ability to mine all the ridiculousness that make Florida stories so irresistible for the rest of us, while also making the case that we should be paying attention to them as more than mere diversion. Florida at large, and Miami specifically, is so often the Ghost of America Future, rasping cryptic warnings about cronyism and demagoguery through garish fake tan and tacky dye job in a WWE-style spectacle.
Again, never is this more true than in 537 Votes, documenting a stolen election that gave us a Mariel Boatlift of hypotheticals: If Gore wins, do we get 9/11? Do we get the Iraq War? Do we go from massive budget surpluses to massive deficits? Do we get a financial crisis? Do we get ISIS and a European refugee crisis? Mass surveillance, Abu Ghraib, Trump… the list goes on. In every example you could at least make the case that the bad thing might not have happened if not for… (*shakes fist*) Florida!
“I think Miami is like this laboratory of humanity,” says Spellman. “You don’t think about Cincinnati or Phoenix. I’m always saying that — this shit would never happen in Cincinnati. But Miami just has this way of all the worst excesses and worst instincts of humanity revealing themselves here. Because we’re a border town, because we’re a place of such a transient population, people move in, they move out, it has kind of this rhythm where almost every 10 years it resets itself and it develops a new image, a new identity.”
“Most other American cities have some sort of indigenous industry,” Corben says, looking a bit like a cool professor with his glasses and shaggy hair, but sounding more like a less bellicose Jim Rome. “Like Motor City, every other city kind of had an identity built around a particular business or company or institution. Miami never had that. I mean, we sold sunshine. We said ‘Come here for vacation. Come here to play.’ So everybody who moved here to live here permanently has to find a hustle to survive. Everybody has always subsisted from hustle to hustle.”
If the Miami of today is the America of tomorrow, the obvious question that comes to mind is, uh… how do we avoid that? Especially since, with a president who lost the popular vote, a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, mass voter suppression efforts afoot, and the widespread fear that the courts might once again step in to decide an election, the 2020 parallel to 2000 is so head-slappingly obvious that it’s almost redundant to mention.
“Brad Blakeman, the Bush campaign operative, has his metaphor about the three-legged stool,” Corben says. “You had to win in the courts, you had to win in the canvassing board recount rooms, and you had to win on the streets. And Al Gore lacked that third leg, and thus his stool fell.” [I’m ignoring the intense poop and penis euphemisms in this statement, though it’s perhaps fitting in a discussion centered around Florida, America’s dong.]
“What does Rick Sanchez say in the movie? ‘While the Democrats were trying to do the right thing, the Republicans were figuring out how to win.'”
“Close elections can be stolen,” Corben goes on. “This fault line that has been dividing over the last 20 years really starts to break and split in 2000. Thinking that we could rely on these checks and balances and the Electoral College or the Supreme Court to say, ‘Well of course you have to count the ballots.'”
“What’s crazy about it is that not only did they stop the recount, but they threw away votes. Bush’s lead had narrowed to 154 by the time the US Supreme Court intervened, and then they said ‘Nah, f*ck it. Let’s throw away those votes that had been discovered in a partial recount.’ I think about Matthew Broderick in Election, when Tracy Flick wins by one vote. He takes the two ballots and he crumples them up in his hand and he just throws them in the trash. The Supreme Court of the United States basically did that in 2000.”
For the rest of us, we can only hope and pray and perform elaborate animal sacrifices that the impending election doesn’t come down to another inept mayor, naive Democrats, and a few shady election officials in South Florida. But for Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, choosing to remain focused on Florida F*ckery has been the career gamble that paid off.
“Billy knew our third partner, Dave Cypkin, since they were three,” Alfred Spellman says. “They went to preschool together. Billy and I met in TV production class, and started making short films together in high school. We all kind of met back up in 2000 to make Raw Deal. So we’ve never really had real jobs. We had our first production company when we were 15. Our dads had to sign the paperwork.”
“We were the youngest filmmakers in Sundance history when we debuted Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” Corben says. “We did like 60 interviews in five or six days, and the last question was always the same. Now that you’ve made a big splash at Sundance, are you going to move to New York or LA? And we just said, ‘No, we’re going to go home.’ We felt that Miami and Florida, Florida at large and Miami specifically, were just this under-tapped resource of characters and stories that we wanted to tell. We wanted Florida f*ckery to be our genre.”
As they say, be careful what you wish for.