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‘Boys State’: A Microcosm of U.S. Politics

Boys State is a new documentary that focuses on an annual event where teenagers are brought together for an exercise in government — providing a revealing glimpse into why politics are the way they are today.

The Boys State event is sponsored by the American Legion and is touted as a week-long experiment in self-governance and boasts an impressive list of previous participants including: former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh and Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.

Started in 1937, there have been both Boys State and Girls State programs; the latter is sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA). Boys and girls are usually nominated by their high school during their junior year and participate the following summer. The events are held in each of the U.S. states except Hawaii.

With participants from all different political backgrounds, a majority of programs divide their participants into two political parties: Nationalists and Federalists. They are then divided into subgroups referred to as cities. The citizens of each of these cities elect mock municipal officials and representatives to a mock state legislature which they propose as well. Other activities include drafting and debating bills, making motions — as well as creating city, county, and state Supreme Courts complete with lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, defendants, and jury members.

Naturally, the process of election exposes the tricks of politics that are evident in real life: intense lobbying and campaigning, tribalism, and questionable ethics.

Being elected to a high office at this event, such as governor, can be an important distinguishing achievement for college or military academy admissions. Many of these events offer college credit to attendees as well. Additionally, many colleges and universities offer scholarships and other awards to those attending the program.

Current issues are inevitably factored into the students’ campaigns at the Boys/Girls State every year. In this documentary, which was filmed at a Texas Boys State event, topics such as abortion and gender politics were discussed.

Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, Boys State has won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Louis Black Lone Star Award Special Jury Recognition for Documentary at the South by Southwest film festival. The film has also gotten rave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds an approval rating of 96%.

Boys State premiered Aug. 14 on Apple TV+.


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