Chicago’s own Kartemquin Films is known in the documentary film world for 50 years of thoughtful, thought-provoking filmmaking. Beyond that narrow niche, the non-profit filmmaking outfit has risen to wider acclaim for films like 1995’s Hoop Dreams and more recent titles including The Interrupters and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. Now, the organization’s releases All the Queen’s Horses, the first feature film released as a result of their Diverse Voices in Docs program, a mentoring effort aimed at empowering and enabling emerging filmmakers of color. The film, by first-time filmmaker and full-time CPA Kelly Richmond Pope, recounts the largest municipal fraud ever committed, as Rita Crundwell quietly embezzled $53 million from Dixon, Illinois, over 20 years.
Dixon is a small town in north-central Illinois, and with a population of just over 16,000, it’s the kind of place with a main street where you meet your neighbors, a mayor who knows just about everyone and a local government that, at least in theory, is small enough to be managed with transparency. But as one city clerk learned when she inadvertently received a detailed account listing, there was something fishy happening with the city’s money; her decision to report that discovery to the mayor quickly snowballed into a federal case against Crundwell, who’d been using the money to fund her horse-breeding operation and lavish lifestyle.
At just over an hour, Pope manages to cram in quite a lot of information about an otherwise dense subject matter. Using graphics simple enough for the layperson to understand, she walks us through just how Crundwell cooked the books, getting away with her scam year after year. All it apparently took was a basic, if solid, knowledge of accounting and a very long run of neighborly trust. With fake invoices and secret accounts, Crundwell built an empire of show horses—massive barns, impressive breeding, championship titles—all with stolen money.
She crams so much in, in fact, that just halfway through the film we’ve seen exactly what Crundwell did, how she did it, and what happened after she was caught. We haven’t, on the other hand, learned anything about Crundwell herself or what motivated her to dupe the people of Dixon to such a major degree. (We do learn in a post-script that Crundwell declined to be interviewed for the doc; this felt like an omission while watching the movie unfold.)
Instead, the second half of the film switches gears to such an extent that it could be a whole new film, as it’s dedicated entirely to the moral arguments around who, in the end, should be responsible for detecting fraud in local governments. Is it the city council? The accountants and auditors? The voters? Once Pope moves on from Crundwell’s story, which via Netflix or Amazon might’ve been stretched out to create an eight-episode true-crime series, she seems to geek out in the details of both the law around fraud and the accounting practices used in perpetrating it. It’s not a bad pivot, per se, but it is a pivot; and one shouldn’t really be taking note of pivots while they’re taking in a film, should they?
Where All the Queen’s Horses stumbles is as it revels in “talking shop” and splitting hairs that only fellow numbers folks will appreciate. In going deep into the questions of who and how, it loses why that keeps the whole thing centered. Without the sliver of humanity that kept it grounded as a film for everyone, it becomes a film more appropriate for classrooms than cinemas.
As an effort in filmmaking diversity, however, it is an unmitigated success. It takes guts to roll into a tight-knit community and convince them to let all their skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. It takes skill and a keen eye to shape all of that into a cogent, coherent (if dense) narrative. All of that is on display here, and though it may not break out as a populous hit like other Kartemquin titles have, Pope’s documentation of this major case in American municipal crime is a solid bit of education.
All the Queen’s Horses opens Friday, November 11, at Gene Siskel Film Center.