Review: We are the Radical Monarchs (2019)

For a documentary covering some grave subject matters, Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s We Are the Radical Monarchs takes an unexpected, perhaps subversive approach to covering the activities of the quasi girl’s scout group whose focus is on American girls of color. Clocking in at almost ninety minutes, the viewing experience leaves one with a permanent sense of optimism, despite the heightened political tension in today’s America.

The show takes us through a 360 view of the Radical Monarchs, a group formed by college then lifelong friends, Annavayette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest. The purpose being to educate and support troops of girls and have them be part of a group that centers their identities as girls of color. With both founders coming from service-oriented backgrounds, the former a community organizer, the latter a development director, there is an instinctive trust, when these women speak about combating the issues surrounding racial identity and social justice. With Oakland, a city with a rich history of active political participation as a backdrop, and cameos from significant civil rights and social justice figures, the documentary establishes its credibility well.

Color is front center and back of this warm documentary on activist American girls.

The best sections feature the girls in their learning units. Early on, they are asked about their understanding of LGBTQI+ and Ms. Martinez gives an applause worthy deconstruction of gender and sexuality for children where gender and sexual expression are compared to the brain and the heart. The girls are the most charming subject matters, speaking with a frankness and earnestness that would placate even the most hardened viewer with a sense of optimism about the country’s future, if children like these were left in charge. The first time we see them, they give their definitions of radical, stemming from powerful to being yourself to community and to making a difference.

Unfortunately, in a bid to be all encompassing, the documentary attempts to hit too many beats at the same time. Featuring talking heads from the founders and the girls, it also features voice overs reeling statistics and updates to serve as some sort of periodic reminders of the escalating challenges of the country they find themselves in. And if that isn’t enough to warn you, there is the esteemed former civil rights activist speaking on how the America of today is more dangerous for people of color than it was for them. There are the well-meaning, but poorly developed subplots of media and digital backlash the group has received. There is also the backstory of the founders each carrying their own distinctive richness. There are slight allusions to the financial challenges of running the program and the absence of donors for years. Many of the subplots have sufficient enough material to form separate documentaries, but lumped into the main plot only serve to lessen its impact not amplify it.

Ultimately, We Are The Radical Monarchs is necessary viewing. If for nothing, but to understand how pervasive the politics of exclusion have been in America. That a group of healthy normal children have indoctrinated into political consciousness did not receive immense support from the get go, speaks volumes about the world we find ourselves. However, in the typical optimistic tone of the documentary, we are blessed with a happy ending. The program survived, got enough funding to launch four new troops, and we get to watch the first troop graduate and wish them well in their futures.

The film is streaming on PBS through August 19th, and it is also available on Netflix.