The Great American Lie

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Great American Lie Movie Poster Image
Thought-provoking docu about racial and gender inequality.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 99 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Encourages compassion, empathy, integrity, and perseverance when it comes to civil and human rights, as well as gender and racial equality. Powerful messages about need for community building, feeding and helping one another, and investing in families, education, children. One activist's message is "books not bars, jobs not jails, health care not handcuffs."

Positive Role Models

The wide range of featured folks all want to make a difference in their communities by serving, listening to, elevating the voices of underserved people and promoting compassion and community.


Middle school students fight, and two adults have to break it up. Archival footage of White supremacists marching, the prison industrial complex, and tense/violent moments during the civil rights era.


Occasional strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," "bulls--t." Also footage of a march where White supremacists chant "Jews will not replace us," etc. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Discussion of opioid addiction, heroin abuse.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Great American Lie is a documentary by filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom that explores the systemic injustices that women and people of color have historically faced in pursuit of the so-called American Dream. Through interviews with historians, political scientists, economists, educators, and politicians, the film reveals the ways that the U.S. system is stacked against certain groups of people -- and, therefore, how much harder they have to fight to get a metaphorical seat at the table. An Oakland middle school principal talks about how difficult it is for her students, most of whom are undocumented and/or living below the poverty line, to study when they're dealing with chronic issues like food and housing insecurity, parents/caregivers who are dependent on substances, and more. On the flip side, a conservative White woman in Louisiana admits that she wasn't raised to be compassionate and has had to work to be empathetic toward others, because she's learned that being financially secure and successful isn't just a matter of hard work and discipline, like she was taught. Expect occasional strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," and "bulls--t") and violent /disturbing archival footage of contemporary White supremacists and Jim Crow-era segregation, as well as middle school students fighting. Ultimately, the movie encourages compassion, empathy, integrity, and perseverance when it comes to civil and human rights, as well as gender and racial equality.

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What's the story?

THE GREAT AMERICAN LIE -- which was written, directed, and produced by documentarian Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation) -- explores the historical, legal, and political ways in which the United States' obsession of the American Dream isn't realistic or feasible for all people ... and that it was never meant to be. Through interviews with historians, educators, activists, and politicians, Newsom digs deeper into how the concepts of "we the people" and the pursuit of individual success are rooted in White, property-owning, masculine attributes that aren't in any way inclusive of women or people of color. Interviewees include the principal of an Oakland charter school where most of the students are at risk because of poverty, or because of parents struggling with substance dependencies, and/or because of the lack of immigration documentation. The film also follows a lifelong conservative whose participation in a church food pantry made her realize that her conservative upbringing failed to teach her empathy and compassion. The Great American Lie clearly argues that climbing the social/economic ladder isn't the same for everyone; instead, some folks are born with a high-speed elevator, while others get a rickety old ladder they keep falling off.

Is it any good?

This is an insightful, overtly progressive documentary about the intersection of gender and racial inequality in relation to the pursuit of the so-called American Dream. Newsom, who is married to California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), interviews an assortment of experts to explore the history of that dream. They look at why it's so much more difficult to attain for women and people of color -- particularly single women of color who make considerably less than White men or White women -- without a safety net or government support. (Given the breadth of the documentary, it seems unnecessary that Newsom decided to also interview her husband, but otherwise it's an impressive list of pundits and scholars.)

Although The Great American Lie highlights several people, the standout by far is Ruby De Tie, the principal of a charter middle school in East Oakland, California. She understands the newcomer and underserved students at her school because she was once in their shoes, growing up with a single mother who had escaped an abusive marriage. She has to counsel not only her students but also the teachers who burn out from the sympathetic trauma of educating kids who face more adversity just getting out of the door in the morning than many Americans do in a lifetime. Economists and historians affirm that the United States' investments in business, law enforcement, and defense -- instead of health care, education, and childcare -- stack the odds against many. But there aren't a lot of solutions offered other than comparisons to countries that prioritize family and fulfillment (like the Scandinavian and other high-tax, high social welfare nations) and, of course, calls for compassion, empathy, and community-building.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the systemic injustice and inequality discussed in The Great American Lie. Do you agree that these issues are a fact of life in the United States? How have they impacted some groups more than others? Why is it important to acknowledge that?

  • Which people featured in the documentary do you consider role models? How do they demonstrate courageempathy, and perseverance? Why are those important character strengths

  • What do you consider the American Dream to be? Is it still -- or was it ever -- a relevant concept? What do you think the historian meant when she said that some people are on a high-speed elevator while others are on a rickety set of stairs in pursuit of that dream?

  • Some critics have mentioned that Siebel Newsom should have disclosed that she's politician Gavin Newsom's wife, since he's one of the interviewees. Do you agree? Is it clear that her documentary has a more progressive perspective than his politics? Why or why not?

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