REVIEW: ‘Councilwoman’ Documentary Chronicles a Dominican Hotel Maid-Turned-Politician Fighting for a Living Wage

Courtesy of the filmmakers

The midterm elections of 2018 proved that grassroots organizing are key in mobilizing large swaths of the population to elect rookie politicians who cut their teeth in service jobs, not in politics. It’s precisely what led to the surprising win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (as the doc Knock Down the House showed). And as Margo Guernsey’s Councilwoman documentary shows, such a strategy is what helped make Carmen Castillo, a hotel housekeeper in Providence, RI, win her seat as councilwoman for the 9th Ward all the way back in 2011. Indeed, despite following Castillo’s first few years in local politics and a heated re-election campaign in 2014, this doc feels right at home in the current political climate. Castillo, a Dominican woman who first came to the United States in 1994 with three of her kids in tow, stands out as a champion for the working class in a city that, in her eyes, rarely serves her community.

Functioning as a longform profile of Castillo, the kind you’d see on an early Sunday morning show, Guernsey’s film follows Castillo as she talks to her constituents, knocks on doors, and fights for a measure that would’ve raised the minimum wage to $15. All, of course, while still working at a hotel: being a local politician is but a part-time job to her. One, she admits, wouldn’t cover her living wage. Some of Guernsey’s most powerful moments come from juxtaposing Castillo’s chores as a housekeeper with her work as a local politician, which her camera treats with equal respect. And while radio hosts had chided her for being “just” a housekeeper who knew nothing about politics, she asserts that just because she cleans other people’s messes doesn’t mean she’s not well-equipped to deal with the day-to-day affairs of city council. “Yes, I am a hotel ‘servant,’” she says to the camera in one of the many one-on-ones Guernsey shoots, “but I have my dignity. I give thanks to God that I proved that people who make beds in a hotel also have brains and can make decisions.”

As Guernsey’s camera follows Castillo — as she drives to yet another yard sale, to another meeting with community leaders, to a protest on behalf of hotel workers — Councilwoman shows the nitty gritty of politics at the local level. And the cost that comes with: a mostly underserved subplot involves Castillo bringing her boyfriend to the US to marry him, only to slowly see they’re not quite as good a match when they’re in the same zip code. But even with a mere glimpse into Castillo’s personal life (like her resigning herself to forgoing door-knocking to pick up her screaming husband elsewhere), this boots-on-the-ground doc demonstrates how hard it is to try and serve a working-class community in a city like Providence.

This isn’t mostly a feelgood story, though. It’s a story about the never-ending work of getting working class communities to be treated with dignity. Seeing the $15 minimum wage initiative undergo setback after setback is demoralizing, but Castillo’s resilience shines through. Time and time again, she wrestles with her own decisions, but always puts her community’s best interests at heart. Early on she announces she’ll never be bought and that she’ll go her own way, and she stays true to that message throughout. A character portrait of a no-nonsense Latina, Councilwoman is an inspiring and informational documentary that serves both as record and template for what politics and politicians can look like in 2019. After all, as Castillo says, “working women move the country forward.”

Councilwoman screened as part of the Havana Film Festival New York.