Image by Steve Onderick
If you’ve read this far, then you probably agree that the twin concepts of “Republican” and “Democrat” are sillier than decaf coffee. Staring down the barrel of a Clinton vs. Bush race to the bottom, maybe you decided to stop voting, or came to realize politics are rotten. If that is even close to your predicament, then I beg you to consume Who Is Vermin Supreme? An Outsider Odyssey by first-time director Steve Onderick. It’s enough motivation to move apathetic asses off the couch and into action, and perhaps to even spur some disenchanted voters toward the polls.
I’m not not just flanking Vermin because he is a longtime hero of mine, or because I am an interview subject in Onderick’s documentary, which has its Hub premier next Tuesday at the Paramount Center in Downtown Crossing. He’s on the cover of DigBoston this week because Vermin, a perennial protester and presidential candidate who’s earned major memetic status from his public antics and the boot atop his head, is by a mile the most palatable White House hopeful for 2016. And like all serious contenders, the commonwealth native now has the story of his life on display for admiration, scrutiny, and inspiration. It’s Supreme’s answer to The Audacity of Hope, the book that President Barack Obama rode to Washington, tagline and all; his informal rebuttal to No Apologies, as two-time loser Mitt Romney branded the account of his tribulations.
Onderick first encountered Vermin in the same way that a lot of people discovered him: “I had seen his big speech that went viral,” the director tells the Dig, “and I thought he was doing something damn interesting there.” He’s referring to a clip from December 2011, when Supreme glitter-bombed an anti-gay wingnut during a fringe candidate debate in New Hampshire. Vermin sprinkled fairy dust on the jackass, gleefully explaining that Jesus wanted him to make his primary opponent gay, and in the process wound up winning the hearts of countless “freaks,” which is what he proudly labels his constituents.
“We met right when people were really starting to notice him,” says Onderick, who shot initial footage for An Outsider Odyssey during the May 2012 demonstrations outside NATO in Chicago, and followed Vermin through the second inauguration of Obama the following January. As shown in the film, Supreme may be the country’s foremost facilitator of peace in protest zones. Onderick continues: “I was really impressed with what he was doing there—it was a scary situation, and I realized nobody had done a documentary on him … Certainly the NATO stuff has a gravitas that isn’t often associated with Vermin. He changed the course of events in a way that prevented people from getting hurt.”
Having filmed Occupy protests in his native Minneapolis and St. Paul toward the end of 2012, Onderick had seen unruly protesters and their bat-wielding oppressors in action. He hadn’t, however, seen a showperson like Vermin, who calls himself a “friendly fascist” and who wowed the new director with his gallant service on the frontlines of domestic revolution. Onderick hadn’t shot a feature up to that point, but knew enough to realize that he had a subject worth pursuing. First though, he had to convince Vermin, who challenged his then-future video biographer to find him in a place so liberating, so colorful, so absolutely strange that even Supreme doesn’t stand out.
“It was a foreign landscape,” the director says of the annual Rainbow Gathering in Tennessee. Vermin has attended the weeklong ritual in the Cherokee National Forest for 25 years, and so Onderick cashed in his savings bonds and drove from Minneapolis to meet Supreme in his natural habitat. He continues: “At first I asked a few hippies, and they were like, ‘Vermin Supreme, I don’t know what that is.’ After about two days though, I finally found him, and that’s where we shot the video for the Kickstarter that made the movie possible … From that point I just sort of jumped into it, and [the movie] ended up being the thing that I devoted most of my life to for the next year or so.”
With crowd-funded seed money, plus an investor and executive producer in an uncle, Onderick squared off with his underlying challenge: to engage a question that no journalist, myself included, has ever really answered: Who the hell is Vermin Supreme?
“I wasn’t really trying to make an expose,” says Onderick, whose mission was to document a candidate turned international meme more than 40 years in the making. “Not that there weren’t breakthroughs—he let me interview his mother, for one, and after she enjoyed being interviewed by me, I got to meet some of his older friends from Baltimore … It was also especially interesting to see how he’s living now—in the woods, in a small old house. You kind of realize that he’s pretty much the real deal—off the grid, in a place you can’t really even see on Google Maps.”
In addition to hilarious and candid footage from the funhouse compound on the North Shore that he calls home, Onderick lifts the boot to show us a younger Vermin who religiously wore a top hat and tails to high school in the ‘70s. We also slink back to his days in Maryland, when the Vermin character was first fully realized, in his longshot race to become mayor of Baltimore. He had a knack for talking cops down off their riot horses, though at the time he mostly used the skill to get his roommates out of trouble for partying. Eventually, Vermin in his political persona ran for mayor of the United States of America, a position he invented, and then for president. He’s since become a fixture during the New Hampshire primaries, where Supreme has famously trolled everyone from John King to John Edwards, and over time developed rivalries with chumps like John McCain and Newt Gingrich.
“Going in I didn’t quite understand what his process was with the election cycle,” says Onderick. The director tailed Vermin from obscure campaign stops all along the East Coast to the last Republican and Democratic national conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, respectfully, as well as to a presidential debate on Long Island. Back up north, some of the most memorable clips come from New York City, specifically the Occupy Wall Street uprising, where Vermin linked with Boston comic and musician Rob Potylo to romantically serenade police.
“He can pull off any given situation,” says Onderick of Supreme, who at one point in An Outsider’s Odyssey demands the immediate surrender of storm troopers, telling cops, “Come out with your pants down. We have you surrounded by love.” Adds Onderick: “A lot of protesters will just back out or yell at the police. Not Vermin … And then you get Rob Potylo involved as well, add these wild characters to the mix, and it’s just totally surreal.”
Vermin’s track record considered, I asked his documentarian how things are shaping up for 2016. “It’s hard to say for certain,” Onderick says, “but I think the political attitude has shifted in a way that’s good for Vermin—more people are pissed at the two parties.” For an even better gauge of things, Onderick recommended that I look to Jimmy McMillan, the founder of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party. Supreme’s running mate in 2012, McMillan appears several times in the film to explain how Vermin represents democracy itself …
“Because you run for public office, you got to wear a suit and a tie? … Put the red tie on for Republican? You got to put the blue tie on for a Democrat? … The question is that, is anyone listening?
“Will they listen to a man with a boot on his head?”
BRIGHT LIGHTS: WHO IS VERMIN SUPREME? AN OUTSIDER ODYSSEY. TUES 3.17. PARAMOUNT CENTER, 559 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. 7PM/ALL AGES. WEB.EMERSON.EDU/BRIGHTLIGHTS
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.