In 2009, Detroit's Insane Clown Posse, aka "The World's Most Hated Band," famously asked, "fucking magnets, how do they work?" Nearly 12 years later, the Psychopathic Records rappers — and believers of miracles, the power of family, and, of course, the all holy sticky sweet Eucharist that is Faygo pop — are posing a serious question fundamental to our democracy: The United States Constitution, how the fuck does it work, and does it work at all?
The United States of Insanity, a new documentary directed by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez that opens in theaters Tuesday, explores ICP's Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J's journey from high school dropouts to unlikely First Amendment warriors amid their fight to defend their fans in the wake of the FBI classifying the group as "a loosely-organized hybrid gang," lumping the duo and their devoted fanbase with notorious gangs including the Bloods, Crips, and even MS-13.
"People hate what they don't understand," Violent J says in the film. "And there's a lot to not understand about ICP. If this happened to a band America liked, the country would be up in arms about this."
While the film's focus is on the grueling back-and-forth decade-long battle to reclassify the "last real subculture in America" as not being a threat to the American public (which, spoiler alert, is far from over), the heart of the film is the all-too humble beginnings of how ICP came to be, what inspires them (Michael Jackson, NWA, and Pearl Jam, to name a few), and why becoming the painted faces of Juggalo nation was always, they believe, their destiny.
For Sanchez and Putnam, who were plotting their next project following the success of Burn, a documentary about Detroit firefighters, the Juggalo journey has been a sticky seven-year process, which started in 2014, on the day ICP held a press conference where they announced, with the support of the ACLU, that they would be challenging the F.B.I. over the criminal gang designation.
"I didn't know a whole lot about them, and [Sanchez] called them up and said, 'Hey, we might be interested in making a documentary about you," Putnam recalls, "and they said, 'Can you have a film crew here tomorrow?'"
And the rest was his... well, not so fast.
"We still didn't know if we were going to do it," Putnam says. "Because we figured that if you're going on a long stagecoach ride with somebody, you better make sure you're going to like them. And we then sat down with them and did the first interview that you seen the film, and it was really kind of, 'Hey, let's all do an interview, see, if you like us, we'll see if we get along with you and if it makes sense to make this movie.' And I was totally blown away. They were not at all like I thought."
Putnam says he only knew of ICP through their music videos (like this one) and through Saturday Night Live sketches (like this one starring Jason Sudeikis of Ted Lasso fame), as well as general public perception, so there was some concern that they might, you know, smash their film gear or set the building on fire. Neither of those destructive acts occurred.
"They were hilarious, as advertised, but they also shocked me with how incredibly open and vulnerable they were in the interview," Putnam says. "They talked about incredibly personal stuff was very easy to see that they weren't holding back. They were just being themselves. They weren't trying bullshit us or tell us what we wanted to hear. And then I got to hear their story. And on the one hand, it's one of the most amazing American success stories I've ever seen. It's about two guys who are high school dropouts, who came from really tough situations and they didn't just build a successful business — they created this whole fantasy world that a million people live in today. And I mean, you can count on one hand the number of people that have done that, right. It's like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel movies, Disneyland, and ICP. That really impressed me."
he adds, "But then, once we started, it was the moment when the gang designation was going from being a joke to the band and the Juggalos realizing how serious it was, and then we're starting to get calls about people whose lives were truly being destroyed."
The film manages to toggle between the idea that two things can be true. The film takes a look at news reports describing a handful of gruesome crimes, attempted murders, and assaults perpetrated by people who happened to be Juggalos (one story about an ax and a hunting knife is particularly disturbing), as well as ICP's lyrics, many of which are perceived as being violent in nature or encouraging violent acts.
"An ICP song is like a three-minute Stephen King novel," Violent J's mother Linda says in the film.
But Sanchez and Putnam also shine a light on the fact that Juggalos often host coat and canned food drives and, as evidenced by the film, ICP gets involved to help a fellow Juggalo in need of lung transplant by raising funds. Then there are the struggles Juggalos face just by being associated with the culture, like that of Arizona's Shawn Wolf, aka Sly Guy Smooth, a single father whose teenage kids are also Juggalos (and are on the honor roll) who was denied custody of his oldest after Child Protective Services surveyed Wolf's home and found ICP memorabilia lining the walls and shelves of his and his kid's bedrooms. (He is quick to note that the main house is ICP-free, and is totally family-oriented, though his car does sport a "2Whoops" license plate. That's "whoop-whoop" for you non-Juggalos.)
"I rather have someone beat the hell out of me than being denied my kids," Wolf says.
There are stories of people losing their jobs as a result of their Juggalo affiliation, being targeted by the police for wearing ICP shirts or the record label's "hatchet-man" logo, because, as Putnam says, the police aren't going to ignore the fact that the FBI has waged a war on a group of music fans. In fact, they're going to comply.
"We talked to hundreds of people, people who got kicked out of the military because they had a tattoo," Putnam says. "There was a guy who got his parole revoked. He wasn't even a Juggalo, but happened to be Facebook friends with a person who had a Juggalo nickname on their Facebook page. As you saw in the film, we spend time with the gang task force. We don't shy away from the law enforcement perspective. But at the end of the day, I think any rational person walks away from this documentary with two things: Wondering if they themselves may be a Juggalo, and two, being really concerned about the precedent this case sets."
He continues, "Something else has surprised me making the film. Juggalos certainly have a certain reputation and it's not positive. But I got to tell you, there were the nicest, most polite people I've ever met, [saying] please and thank you, 'hey, can we help you carry your gear?' When we were shooting concerts, they'd be like, 'Look out, here comes a two-liter of Faygo!'
One of many highlights of The United States of Insanity is, without a doubt, footage of The Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual music festival where devoted Juggalos (and even sociologists) of all creeds, colors, and clownery can camp out, rage out, and whoop-whoop til their hatchet man-covered hearts' content.
"I drove 38 hours to be here," one Gathering-goer says in the documentary.
"I drove 55 hours," another claimed.
It gets better.
"I quit both my jobs to be here," one Juggalo said of his sacrifice.
"I'm out on bond right now, I'm not supposed to even be here, real talk," another confessed, not to be outdone by this guy: "If I died, my soul would have made the journey. I would still be here."
Juggalo love runs deep and travels far, especially when it is for the good of the family, including a trip all the the way to Washington, D.C.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against ICP in 2017, the Juggalos held a massive march on Washington, D.C., to protest the designation and the subsequent ill-treatment of their hatchet man-wielding family. As seen in the film, non-Juggalos showed up to show their support for the cause because, as you'll see, this is bullshit.
As it stands now, ICP could win their next appeal, which could land their civil liberties case in the Supreme Court, but as much as Putnam wants that to happen, he doesn't see the case making it that far. And, he reminds, that the FBI has never taken any group off the gang list, which is where ICP has been listed since the release of the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment report put out by the National Gang Intelligence Center.
However, ICP is winning in one court — the court of public opinion. A victory, sure, but the precedent, unfortunately, has been set.
"And given what history has shown us, it's only a matter of time before the next group ends up on that list," Putnam says.
For the director, there were a lot of takeaways when making what ended up being a very patriotic movie as he spent nearly a decade with Shaggy 2 Dope, Violent J, and their massive extended family. Not only is he convinced that ICP is one of the most hardworking and entertaining acts in the business — and have been for nearly 30 years and counting, despite Violent J's recent health woes — but he also believes that, deep down, we might all have a little Juggalo in us, if we're lucky. Oh, he's also been given an honorary Juggalo name: Buttman. Don't ask.
"Beyond having destroyed a lot of clothes because most flavors of Faygo stains," he says, "for me this has reminded me that it's easy to look down on people who like things that are different than what you like. But that at the end of the day, you probably have much more in common with them than you would think. And that almost everything has value to somebody."
Putnam adds. "And we as a society should not be legislating taste. You'd be constantly surprised by who you know that's a Juggalo. And that's the irony of this law, which forces people to hide who they are, and ends up reinforcing that belief."
The United States of Insanity is in select theaters Tuesday, Oct. 26 only. For more information, visit fathomevents.com.