Last year around this time, Miami filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman began thinking of the 2020 presidential election.
But beyond the consequential import of the 2020 race, the pair pondered another extraordinary election: the 2000 George W. Bush/Al Gore contest for the White House in which Miami-Dade County took a leading role in deciding the outcome. Lessons from that debacle could resound 20 years later on Nov. 3, 2020, the filmmakers figured.
In that contested 2000 race, the Republican candidate, Bush, slid into the White House on a razor’s edge, 537-vote victory in Florida over Gore, the Democrat and incumbent vice president. The terms “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballot” entered the lexicon and changed the physical nature of how we vote in Florida today.
‘537 Votes’ on HBO in October
Corben and Spellman’s conversation will soon turn into the Rakontur movie studio pair’s latest documentary, “537 Votes,” which is set to debut on HBO and stream on HBO Max on Oct. 21.
“Soon,” because Corben, who directs, is still applying the finishing touches in a socially distanced South Florida studio on what he calls a “labor of love” project. He’s hinting “537 Votes” is the “most Rakontur film” of them all. And, alongside producing partner Spellman and executive producers Adam McKay (“The Big Short”) and Todd Schulman, Corben has crafted what he’s nicknaming a “heist film.”
For documentary film buffs this could be an enticing proposition given the Miami Beach film studio’s freewheeling and entertaining roster of documentaries. These include “Cocaine Cowboys” and its sequels and a theatrical production, “The U,” about the University of Miami football program for ESPN, and “Screwball,” about former Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis steroid scandal, on Netflix.
.@HBODocs Film's 537 Votes from director @BillyCorben and executive producer @GhostPanther debuts Monday, Oct. 21.— HBO PR (@HBOPR) September 18, 2020
The documentary chronicles the political machinations that led to the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election: https://t.co/kFRGuKKv9p pic.twitter.com/A19qyL7zBG
But “537 Votes” will be the Rakontur team’s first for HBO.
According to Warner Media and HBO Documentary Films, Rakontur’s “537 Votes” details how the “international custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez triggered a political earthquake in Miami-Dade County in 2000.” The film includes interviews from insiders and political operatives like Roger Stone, Joe Geller, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, and Al Cárdenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
20th anniversary of the butterfly ballot
“Several things dawned on us last year,” Corben said. “2020 would be the 20th anniversary of the 2000 recount. We were curious. We wondered how many Americans who would be eligible to vote in 2020 would have not been born yet or were too young to know what went on in that extraordinary, unprecedented election and the lessons that could be gleaned from it in this election of consequence this year.”
Corben said he learned about 54 million Americans would have come of age since the 2000 election and who can now vote in the Donald Trump-Joe Biden presidential race that will be decided in November.
Remember the 2000 butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County? Hanging chads? Green Party candidate Ralph Nader?
Corben and Spellman asked one of their assistants what she recalled of that 2000 election. She was born in 1990 and was 10 at the time of Bush-Gore, Corben said.
She told the duo she didn’t recall anything about the election. But she quickly volunteered the term, “hanging chads,” which, in the days of punch-card ballots, led to a whole vote recount fiasco in Miami-Dade. Election officials in Miami-Dade had to try to determine voters’ intent when the hole wasn’t cleanly punched and the chad hung off the ballot like a flapping barn door.
Miami-Dade’s influence on an election
“A presidential election came down to 537 votes, and in Florida that is less than 10 votes per county,” Corben said, detailing his fascination with the subject. “We also realized that Miami-Dade had an outsized influence on that outcome.
“We were the largest and bluest county in the state and over the course of that year there had been some historically significant events that had impacted the outcome: the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, the devastating disenfranchisement and purging of African Americans and, of course, Ralph Nader,” Corben added. “The election was lost in many places but it was stolen in Miami and so we said we want to make a heist movie about the 2000 recount.”
Corben said he hopes the history and lessons baked into the new HBO film inspire those 54 million young Americans to turn out for the 2020 election and cast a ballot.
“We wanted to get involved in the election this year and were considering how to direct our core competency and skill set to that end,” Corben said.
“When we heard they were making a film with a uniquely Miami perspective on the 2000 recount, we really wanted to support it in any way possible,” McKay said in HBO’s news release.
“Miami is nothing if not ‘grandly entertaining’ for better or worse,” Corben said. The new movie, he said, “is done with a lot of the style and flair that Miami is known for and with some of the tropes of a heist movie.”