Roll Red Roll


We revere our sons but marginalize our daughters.

(2018) Documentary (Sunset ParkAlexandria Goddard, Detective J.P. Rigaud, Ma’lik Richmond, Shawn McGee, Michael Nodramus, Jeremy Jones, Rachel Dissell, Michelle Nelson, Mark Nelson, Gretchen Nelson, Madeleine Nelson, Mario Cuomo, Jeno Atkins, Vinnie Fristick, Reno Saccoccia, Walter Madison, Mike DeWine, Mike McVey, Marianne Hemmeter, Michele Robinson. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman

Rape culture has become an aspect of the news cycle in recent years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement in which women on social media who have experienced some sort of sexual crime from harassment to rape identified themselves as survivors. We have seen it in the light, inconsequential sentences given to those convicted of rape. We have seen it in the way those who report it are traumatized not only by the crime but by how they are treated afterwards. Boys will be boys, and boys rape or at least so the line of thinking goes.

Steubenville is a small town in the Rust Belt, a largely working-class town. There are not a lot of opportunities in Steubenville; most people have dead end jobs in the service industry as the manufacturing jobs that were once the town’s lifeblood are mainly gone. It’s most famous resident was the legendary Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin; after that, the town’s pride and joy is its high school football team which has won ten Ohio State championships since 1925 and as recently as 2017. The town supports its football team with a fervor verging on the religious.

In August 2012, a preseason party in Steubenville ended up with a student from another school (identified in the film only as Jane Doe, although the girl involved was identified by name on Fox News and other outlets) was raped by several members of the Steubenville football team. The girl had been drinking a lot to the point where she was passed out or nearly so. Two of the members of that team – Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays – transported her to another party and then to a third. Photos were taken. Video was taken. Tweets were made.

The girl was humiliated by the social media attention, amounting to a second rape. She decided to press charges even though her memory of the evening was very fuzzy. Detective J.P. Rigaud was assigned the case and he began the process of interviewing people at the party that she last remembered being at – the first one.

In the meantime, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard – who grew up in Steubenville although she was then based in Columbus – saw an item about two football players being charged in the rape of a teenage girl and thought that there had to be more to it than that. She began digging, looking up tweets and Facebook posts, even managing to search the archives of Twitter to see deleted tweets.

What she found was shocking – the utter lack of empathy, the objectification, the misogyny displayed by the boys (and even to a certain extent the girls of Steubenville High who shrugged and said “She should never have gone with those boys”) who joked about the event “Song of the night: Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.” “Holy shit! Something crazy’s going down, bro” and “She got raped harder than that black cop raped Marcellus Wallace.”

The town reacted with a mixture of shock – some shocked that the boys would behave as they did, others shocked that the blogger would treat their football stars as guilty before they’d even gone on trial.” Goddard was reviled and even feared for her safety as supporters of the football team called her all sorts of vile names and wished all sorts of disgusting things to be done to her. Eventually the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up the story, then the New York Times. Finally, the hacktivist group Anonymous picked up on Jane Doe’s story and organized protests in Steubenville, targeting (somewhat unfairly) the police response, the town’s reaction, the lack of internal punishment for the players (neither Mays nor Richmond were kicked off the team despite the hard line taken by Coach Reno Saccoccia on underage drinking on his team.

Schwartzman presents the details dispassionately and chronologically. She is obviously outraged by what happened and she uses the film as a means of illustrating what rape culture means in a small American Midwestern town, supposedly the bastion of American values. One reporter mused “In protecting our sons are we putting our daughters at risk?” The short answer: yes.

The issue I have is that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Boys aren’t born rapists; we see only a little bit of the atmosphere that produced Mays and Richmond as well as the rest of the football team who thought this girl’s suffering was a big joke. While Richmond breaks down when apologizing to Jane Doe and her family in court, we never get a sense if Mays ever felt remorse or if the rest of the team felt any. Did anybody actually learn anything?

Also, these kids are all working class kids. I wonder if this case would have been treated the same way if the defendants came from a more privileged background. We’ve seen high profile cases in which wealthy white young men got off virtually consequence free for their actions. Some would say that relatively speaking, Mays and Richmond did the same.

Maybe that wasn’t Schwartzman’s function as a documentarian to find all the answers. The question is certainly raised in my mind at least so in that sense the documentary is a success, but it is a very hard film to watch emotionally and especially for those affected directly or (in my case) indirectly by rape, misogyny and sexual objectification. Goddard – the heroine of this story and a true inspiration – wrestles with the thought that she may be causing Jane Doe harm by forcing her to endlessly relive the events of that evening. Goddard comes off as a tough cookie but she dissolves into tears thinking about it.

Rape culture is a fact and we are living in it. Attitudes have to change, that much is certain. Women don’t deserve to be raped, no matter how much they drink, what they might choose to wear or where they choose to be. Men are not entitled to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t give consent. Maybe in some way this movie – which will be playing the Florida Film Festival in a few weeks – will help move that change along.

REASONS TO SEE: The facts are well-presented. This may be the most in-your-face depiction of rape culture ever captured.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is a very hard movie to watch even if you haven’t directly been a survivor of sexual violence but particularly if you have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and frank discussions about rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was selected to kick off the 2019 season of the acclaimed PBS documentary film series POV in June.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Blue

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The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus