Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip review – smart dispatches from a nation in crisis


The election of Donald Trump in 2016 only poured rocket fuel on the UK’s seemingly unquenchable fascination with how American society functions – or doesn’t. Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip (Channel 4) marks the latest attempt by a travelling Brit to unravel and understand some of the nation’s starkest problems and divisions. “We’re interested in a hopeful story about the American dream,” he says to one of the men he meets here, a brief but telling summary of how he first approached the trip. But Perry filmed the series in the summer of 2019, to air before this year’s looming election. He may not have reckoned with the whiplash speed of an apocalyptic news cycle: much of what has happened since already makes this feel like a relic of a different era.

On a motorbike built especially for the series, Perry rides across the country in the trademark brightly coloured leathers that mark him out as an eccentric and an outsider. This is a useful tactic for explorers in his position. It reveals him as an observer from the off, a merely curious presence with no skin in the game. He does not bother with the faux-naivety of someone like Louis Theroux, say, preferring a more directly cerebral approach. In this first episode of three, he rides around the south, focusing mainly on Atlanta, with a brief detour to Washington DC.

To begin with, he is speaking to people about race, racism and the intensifying culture wars, and will produce art inspired by what he learns at the end of the series. Although the series was filmed before the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, and the subsequent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, it is all there to see, simmering away, ready to boil over.

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He heads first to Atlanta, described as “Wakanda” by one of his interviewees, an amiable radio host, entrepreneur and socialite called Erik Gordon. While Perry is interested in the nation’s economic divisions, in this episode, he is more taken with the stories of the rich than of the poor. Gordon takes him to a fancy party, where he sits down for dinner with black people who open up about how they adjust themselves in the workplace and in social situations: one man says he knows exactly what colour suit he should wear when he is working in a predominantly white corporate environment.

“Are black people happier and more successful the less they have to deal with white people?” Perry asks, by way of a last question.

“You can’t … that’s not a last question!” splutters the woman sitting next to him, but its bluntness instigates a frank discussion. Later, he sits with three black women in their 20s, who talk to him about their experiences of sex and dating outside of their race. He meets a community project leader, who talks about being pulled over by the police, and how he runs through a checklist of what to do, so as not to be seen as a threat.

Perry is skilled at getting stories out of people, as he did in his previous documentary series about British class, masculinity and rituals. But his interviewees are generous with their stories, too. When Perry asks his questions, they can be taken as provocative, but that does not seem to be for the sake of provocation. He says that race is “a fucking great elephant in the room”, and argues that more people should be talking about it, rather than tiptoeing around the subject.

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The approach certainly seems to work for Perry, and he is eager to learn. When the film is at its most revealing, his empathy helps him find the right question for the right moment. However, it is elevated above most other travelogues of this ilk by the simple fact that the people he meets are given the space to reply; not in brief soundbites, but with the kind of lengthy answer that complicated (and sometimes uncomplicated) questions often require. He occasionally butts in with his own thoughts, but he largely gives people room to think. Perhaps counterintuitively, this makes for better television.

When he meets Shereé Whitfield, former star of the reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, we catch a surprisingly moving glimpse of her isolation from her past and from her peers. Ultimately, this road trip turns into an exhortation to talk – and to keep talking. In the social media age, we are talking all the time, of course, but what Perry argues most convincingly is that we need to listen, too.



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