Featuring, perhaps, the most serious discussion of first amendment rights from two grown men in clown makeup, “The United States of Insanity” dares you to laugh at the absurdity of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s oddly-loved Insane Clown Posse before diving headfirst into a lengthy, and occasionally heady, conversation regarding the power structures behind who is allowed to dictate musical taste and the ways in which the government attempts to act as cultural curators. This isn’t exactly the film one expects from two guys who, as several critics have said, make some of the “worst albums ever.”
But, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s film use the first-amendment court case, in which ICP and their fans — self-described Juggalos after ICP’s song “The Juggla” — were labeled by the FBI as a gang, as a pretext to explore the Juggalo subculture. Cutting between introductions to the two Joes (Violent J’s Joseph Bruce and Shaggy 2 Dope’s Joseph Utsler), the Juggalo fans, and the repercussions of labeling the Juggalos’ as a gang, ‘Insanity’ works well as both an introduction to ICP and a more significant indictment about governmental interference.
Juxtaposing interviews with ICP with numerous talking heads, ‘Insanity’ underlines their outsider status. Odd kids who never found a group to belong to, the two Joe’s got into wrestling before becoming rappers, inspired by NWA Hustling their way through Detroit, they gained prominence as the Inner City Posse, putting out self-produced EPs within the gangsta rap subgenre. But, they found national prominence only when they moved to “horrorcore” and embraced the clown makeup that is so identifiable.
Along the way, ICP gathered a cult following. As the film showcases, the Juggalos mainly come from a lower socioeconomic standing that often found kinship in the oddness of ICP and their followers. Blossoming into a movement — including the annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival — the Juggalos were quickly villainized for their style of dress, as political and social movements demonized them.
‘Insanity’ is unabashedly aligned with the Juggalos, contextualizing the movement through a series of film clips — “The Warriors,” “The Goonies,” “Blues Brothers,” etc. — that play up the familial aspects of the movement. So, when the FBI tagged ICP as a gang, the crackdown was unsurprisingly swift given ICP’s makeup and lyrics. Pointing to a series of violent crimes perpetrated by so-called Juggalos, local police departments began harassing Juggalos under the authority of the FBI.
What becomes increasingly clear, however, is just how un-gang like the Juggalos are. A loose-knit community of music fans, they hold no dominant ideology: besides liking the same music. With a series of interviews with Juggalos, Putnam and Sanchez hammer home their point. The Juggalos are, on the whole, the working poor. Outsiders who have perhaps been ostracized because of their fashion style or lifestyle choices that have nonetheless found a relatively welcoming community that embraces them.
Yet because their musical tastes fall outside of the mainstream, they are constantly othered. While ‘Insanity’ is a good primer to ICP, when the film shifts to tracking the economic and social repercussions of self-identifying as a Juggalo after being labeled as a gang, ‘Insanity’ hits a stride. In a particularly affecting sequence, a single father in Arizona is not given custody of his son because his house is littered with ICP merchandise. Even more time is spent on the philanthropic efforts of the Juggalos, extending from feeding those who attend the Gathering and into community clean-ups, food drives, etc.
On the margins of all this are Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, two middle-aged white men who are, seemingly, decent family men and insistent that they are merely playing characters. Outside of their admittedly violent lyrics, they often preach acceptance and kindness. Known for their fan interactions, they read less like leaders of the Juggalo movement than just happy artists who are into their music. Reluctantly thrust into the national spotlight, they eventually team up with the ACLU because of the targeted harassment of their fans.
Once the film gets into the political fight —nearly the last third of the runtime — ‘Insanity’ takes on a beautifully surreal quality. There’s nothing like the image of an ACLU press conference with buttoned-up lawyers sitting beside Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Further, a first-amendment march in DC culminates in an ICP concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Putnam and Sanchez also understand that the first reaction is, perhaps, to gawk at these (literally) clownish figures fighting for free speech but, as the ACLU lawyer Michael J. Steinberg points out, you don’t have to like —or even understand — ICP to see that the FBI is trying to control what music is deemed acceptable. That Steinberg eventually ends up on stage with ICP performing one of their famous ‘Faygo showers’ is, without a doubt, in line with the overall absurdity.
‘Insanity’ doesn’t see this case entirely through, and a quick Google search will tell you the outcome. But, if the film splits its time a bit too loosely and unevenly between ICP biography, anthropological study of Juggalo culture, and trial recitation, all three of these subplots are nothing less than fascinating. [B+]