When we last checked in on those crazy Kony kids, they were busy fomenting societal change by wearing color-coordinated shirts and raising their fists on cue. So it wasn't any surprise when the film's immediate success prompted a vicious backlash, claiming one of the filmmakers in its wake. Hey, they kind of asked for it.
But that presented a real problem for Invisible Children, the group behind the campaign. Jason Russell's public meltdown, coupled with extensive debate over the film's tone, tactics and loosey-goosey conveyance of the facts, threatened to overshadow its efforts to focus attention on the barbarism of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. And then the same techno-virality that fueled Kony 2012's ascent started to work against it. After all, we live in a short-attention-span society, where the next big cause/curiosity/calamity is only a click away and… ooh, look, that dog has a puffy tail!
Thus the obvious move was to re-don the pants of compassion and release a sequel: "Kony 2012: Part II - Beyond Famous," which arrived this morning. Following the most viral video in the history of Internet contagion would seem to present a daunting challenge, especially given the attention any/all new Kony volleys are likely to receive. But to the filmmakers' credit, the second Kony go-round mostly dodges the artifice and gasbaggery of the first. It makes a far more persuasive case for action and involvement, appealing less to the heart than to the head.
I'm not big on the whole kicking-a-guy-when-he's-down thing, but Russell's absence has a lot to do with this. The first Kony film was as much about him - his commitment, his saintliness, his worn-on-the-sleeve passion - as it was about the cause. The second film, by comparison, largely steers clear of white guys with excellent wavy hair, instead using on-the-ground organizers as its primary talking heads. This focuses attention back where it belongs: on the cause.
So what are the other differences? Kony II is 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor. It tones down the rhetoric, abandoning huge-picture "people have the power!" pronouncements in favor of ones stressing the importance of keeping the issue on the radar of elected officials. It limits the inclusion of comely young people wearing hipster glasses to a mere 35.
Most importantly, it features precisely zero scenes that document a young child's response to dialogues like "there's this evil man named Kony, and he's running wild in the forest with a bunch of murderous pals, and he kidnaps boys and girls just like you, and he never lets them have dessert. Okay, time to go to bed. Sleep well!" It can't be overstated how much this helps. The scenes in Kony I featuring Russell and his bright-eyed, mop-topped scamp were pure gimmickry, and failed to draw the intended analogy to the lost childhoods of Ugandan children. Direct testimony from members of affected families, abundant in Kony II, is far more powerful and far less manipulative.
You can skip the film's last five minutes, when Invisible Children lapses back into smart-phones-and-Twitter-are-implements-of-revolution mode ("We are a new generation of justice, made for such a time as this," "For the first time in history, the people of the world can see each other… this changes everything"). And you can ignore the few hasty bits devoted to addressing the criticism of Kony I, which try but fail to show some small degree of self-awareness. But don't discount the effort or the noble intentions, or the skill with which the filmmakers make their case. Give Invisible Children credit: they've learned from their mistakes.