Before Barack Obama ascended to the White House in 2008, political prognosticators spent years debating whether a Black politician could be overwhelmingly elected to America's highest office. In recent years, many of those same commentators have wrestled with a similar question: Could an out gay candidate win the presidency?
That thought experiment was put to the test during the 2020 election cycle, when the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, embarked on what seemed like a long-shot bid for the Oval Office, only to shock the political establishment when he and Bernie Sanders had a near-photo finish in the Iowa caucuses, which is often seen as a bellwether for the national campaign.
Along with the national news media, documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss was also in Iowa to capture Buttigieg's triumphant moment. Unlike those reporters, though, Moss had special access to the suddenly in-demand candidate, having already been embedded in the Buttigieg campaign for months capturing his evolution from small-town mayor to national political player. The resulting documentary, Mayor Pete, premieres Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video and captures many indelible moments from Buttigieg's time on the campaign trail, which ended in March 2020 following primary losses in New Hampshire and South Carolina. After suspending his own presidential bid, Buttigieg endorsed the eventual winner, President Joe Biden, and currently serves in his cabinet as the secretary of transportation.
Because Buttigieg didn't make it onto the general election ballot, Moss tells Yahoo Entertainment that the question of whether Americans could elect an out gay president remains unanswered for now. "We didn't get to see that tested," he says. "He wasn't the nominee, so there was ultimately no [national] referendum. There was a referendum in South Carolina, but a lot of other candidates also dropped out at that moment, so you can't say that it was a referendum on the fact that a gay man was a candidate."
Instead, Moss thinks that Mayor Pete offers a different takeaway.
"I think that Pete's story is a validation of the possibility of an out gay candidate going that far. And I love how Pete answers that question himself in the film. It's put to him when he's doing an event with Al Sharpton, and he tells Sharpton: 'It's sort of a disservice to the American public to imagine that's not possible.' He has faith in the American electorate."
During the filming process, Moss was also uniquely able to capture the relationship between Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, who has a savvy political mind in his own right. "It was really powerful to see Pete negotiate his identity as an out gay married man with his partner, and watch them work out that high-wire act as a couple," the director explains. And the couple is still balancing that high-wire act now that they've traded South Bend for Washington D.C. In recent weeks, Buttigieg was criticized by Fox News host Tucker Carlson for taking paternity leave for their newborn adopted twins — comments that were widely derided as homophobic on social media.
"How this film fits into the larger conversation [about Pete] will be interesting to see," Moss says. "I think people are still asking, 'Who is this guy?' and the movie helps answer that question and lets you in on who Pete is in ways that are valuable. I don't know if he'll be president, but he's going to be on the public stage for a while. As he says in the film, 'Time is on my side.'
One of the things that Buttigieg says to you early on in the documentary is that he worries being on the campaign trail will change him. Did you see a change as you followed him?
I think he does change; I think he grows. I don't think he becomes a fundamentally different person, but I think he stretches because he has to. Chasten lays that question out when he says: "You should ask him if he's able to be his authentic self." The process that Pete goes through while running for president asks a lot of him, which is what it does for anybody who undertakes it. Of course, he's really confident in who he is, but he's undertaken this enormous task and you see his consultants challenge him and say, "You've got to be more emotionally demonstrative. You've got to let people in." I think that's the dilemma that he faces, to be himself, but also be all these things to the other people around him. I found that really fascinating to watch.
You started filming him before his campaign took off: how were you able to get that kind of early access?
When we started filming, he hadn't officially announced his candidacy, but he was talking about it. He had a staff of four, so it was pretty easy to go right to the man himself and ask him about this project. To our surprise, he was open to it, because he knew our work enough to respect where we were coming from. He understood that we would need to be independent and that we weren't there to promote his campaign. He was committed to transparency, but to let a filmmaking film the good and the bad is a lot to ask in a high-stakes process like this.
It might be that the stakes were so low at that point, he thought he had nothing to lose! To Pete's credit, he stayed true to his commitment, and I was there through thick and thin, good and bad until the very bittersweet end. I thought he might push me away at that point, but it's a testament to him that he actually brought me closer as he was withdrawing from the race. What was hard was that the campaign scaled up so fast from four people to 400-500 people. At that point, he had people he'd hired to protect him from people like me. So negotiating that was, let's just say, hard. [Laughs]
We're almost 30 years removed from one of my favorite political documentaries, The War Room, which captured the beginnings of modern presidential campaigns through the lens of Bill Clinton's run. Looking at how campaigns operate now in your film, I have to admit to feeling a little depressed about the process and how stage-managed they are.
That film propelled me into making documentaries, and what's interesting is that it's not really about the candidates: it's about the consultants. The opportunity here was to see the candidate up close. But I also saw the degree to which politics — particularly presidential politics — is totally stage-managed. I began to define the quality of a scene by the absence of [news media] cameras. If there were other cameras there, it was never going to be a good scene.
I loved going home with Pete and Chasten and seeing their life together, and seeing him in the South Bend campaign office with his consultants. Of course, debate preparation was interesting, and there's some choice moments in the film. I filmed every single debate prep, and there were many presidential debates! Did you ever see that Metallica film, Some Kind of Monster? I mean, we could have made a whole movie that was just debate preparation, and it would've been interesting.
In those scenes, you see the way debate prep functions repeat as a chance for [political strategist] Lis Smith, who was his senior communications adviser, to really hammer him. She's the only person who's able to talk to him that way and tell him, "You're not going to be president if you can't access it in yourself." Her advice to him was to not be someone you're not, but also find a way within yourself to connect with people emotionally or you'll never get past Iowa. That was interesting to watch and also became central to the political narrative of Pete becoming a credible candidate.
What do you think impacted his national prospects after he shined so brightly in Iowa? Is there one thing you point to as being the cause?
I think you see in the documentary that he's struggling to connect with African American voters. That's an important thread in this film, and it's a conversation that the Democratic party is having: how do you knit together this fractious coalition and reach across and make connections with other constituencies? How do you deliver for them? What is it about you that speaks to them if you have very different lived experiences? Biden had the benefit of 50 years of public life and serving as Barack Obama's vice president so you could say that he had certain institutional advantages.
Pete, meanwhile, had African American supporters in South Bend who'd been with him through thick and thin. But he also had real challenges, and I love that those questions are put directly to him [by Black voters] in the film: Why should I vote for you, the white candidate, in this moment? I think it opens up a conversation, which I'm interested in having and hope that people have after watching the film with their friends and family and others.
Chasten Buttigieg emerges as a very interesting figure in the movie — what was his larger influence on his husband's campaign?
Chasten's kind of a secret weapon, both for Pete and for me making this film. He's very different than Pete in that he's very demonstrative and funny and so quick. He's just alive in the way that a great documentary subject is. I could have made a whole movie about Chasten, and I thought about it, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to see Pete from Chasten's point of view. There are tender moments between them, but also moments of tension where Chasten is questioning him about things like, "Why am I not going to be onstage when Bernie Sanders's wife is on stage?"
I love how old-fashioned their relationship is, while also being totally 21st century. They're a gay millennial married couple on a big stage together, negotiating their identities and now adopting kids. Chasten was a great friend in this process: I liked being around him and he was really supportive of the film. I'm curious to see what his future is as a political spouse. I think he's just so kind of good in public in his own way. He'll define a role for himself that's probably totally unique.
In contrast to all the stage-managed events, there's a great scene in the film where you capture Buttigieg and then-candidate Joe Biden having a fun candid moment in between rallies. Were you excited to be able to film an encounter like that?
It's hard to get! You do see the candidates kind of blow past each other like ships in the night at those events and rarely do they really connect. When we were filming in New Hampshire, we captured another lovely moment with Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff and Chasten and Pete, but it didn't find its way into the movie. I'm sure there are dimensions of tension and friendship on the campaign trail that are fascinating. I love that Biden has a cameo in the film, and it's not a performative moment — it's just a private moment between them. I did film the scene where Pete endorsed Biden, and you see that Biden has real affection for Pete that's not purely political.
If Biden decides not to run for a second term, do you see Buttigieg running again?
I don't know, man! I was actually just having this conversation with my wife and producing partner, Amanda McBaine, about the configurations of a race depending on where we are in 2024. It's interesting to think about how Pete fits into that puzzle. We certainly know there's a lot of time between then and now.
Would you hope that he invited you back to film that campaign?
I think I might have to take a break from campaign films. [Laughs] I mean, never say never. The idea of making a series of political documentaries like Michael Apted's Up films appeals to me. We actually considered that with this film: we thought that if Pete flamed out early, maybe we could come back to him at four, eight and twelve years later. So maybe this is a part of something bigger — I don't know yet.
Mayor Pete premieres Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video