| March 6, 2022
The horror of 100,000 American dead (and counting) from the Novel Coronavirus and the grotesquerie of watching a man murdered before our eyes by a white policeman applying the pressure of body weight and a knee to the neck of an already under control black man will certainly bring us a wave of documentaries to sadden the soul in the years to come.
But on this very week, there are 3 new documentaries that speak to the plight of young women in our nation through the last six decades. They couldn’t be much more different in style or substance. But each packs a punch that cannot be denied and should not be avoided.
The story that has the earliest origin is AKA Jane Roe (FX/Hulu), which is both a history of Norma McCorvey’s life, her struggles as the famous Jane Roe in the Roe v Wade case, her late conversion to born again Christianity, and her confession of intentionally misleading others in the final days of her life.
Nick Sweeney is a relatively new documentarian, the first of his 5 films coming in 2014. And it is apparent in the film in various ways. His approach on this one, in terms of new footage, is very Maysles, following around McCorvey for what she proclaims as her deathbed confession. But the research and found footage elements are quite excellent, especially with McCorvey to narrate much of it. Who was this woman before, during, and after Wade. And then who did she become when the attention subsided a bit?
For me, the alternative title of the film could have been, “That’s So Norma,” because the personality was so strong and distinctive from early on in her life. She was abused. She was self-destructive. But she was also daring in strong in a ways we take for granted these days… or perhaps we have forgotten what that looks like.
It’s one of those narratives that is deceptively simple, because it always feels so sincere and undeniable. McCorvey is, somehow, both Forrest Gump and all the famous people he meets and all the pain that never quite seems to register in him, all in one.
It was fitting that I watched this right after the closing episode of Mrs America, a series I quite liked in all its kinks, and which ended with footage of the real-life version of the women whose lives together in the struggle had been dramatized. I miss those women. Women of their spirit are certainly around and growing in power every year. But one of the beautiful things about that era was that those women were not cleaned up so much. In fact, Gloria Steinem’s concern about her looks made her am interesting outlier in the series, much as she was a leader. I grew up hearing men frame Friedan and Abzug and others by their prejudiced standards of beauty. But this so missed the point.
And so it was for Norma McCorvey, who was not a traditional beauty, but carried herself with a power that was always apparent. Remarkable for a person who was so often victimized and who so often victimized herself.
On The Record (HBO Max) is the third documentary on sexual abuse by the team of Kirby Dick and Amy Zierling. The first, The Invisible War, is about abuse inside the military. The second, The Hunting Ground, is about sexual abuse on college campuses. And their latest is about really about workplace sexual abuses, particularly as it regards women of color, though it does center around media mogul Russell Simmons.
The skill set here is at the highest level of this group of films. The structure, editing, and imagery qualifies as artistic. But the facts are laid out, as in any quality doc. Drew Dixon was a soul-deep music lover and knew tahts he wanted to make a life out her passion. And she did. In her early 20s, she was a rising star behind the scene in the urban music scene. She had the ear for it. She understood the artists. And she was backed by Russell Simmons, who was an ascendant star-maker and star in his own right in that world. By the time she was 26, she was out, depressed, a bit broken, and a victim of acquaintance rape. In fact, the relationship the two had was used by Simmons to create the opportunity for the rape that happened.
But then the film also takes us back through what seemed like a magical era for black culture in America and addresses the dangers of success, especially for men who felt their power grow to the point where asserting that power became a daily habit, no matter what the cost to others.
Not unlike AKA Jane Roe, a big part of disarming the cynic in all of us is the intimacy the central figure allows. We spend enough time with Drew Dixon that we feel like we know her, more than a little. You can see the pain of her journey in her eyes. And then in the eyes of other women. We all have bullshit detectors. But unless you came to this film with your mind already made up to disbelief the women, I’d dare you to show me where you think these women are insincere. And when you have a long list of women, telling very similar stories, details connecting without rough edges, offering the camera their truths, it is not like taking one rape accusation and wondering if it is accurate. Five percent or so of rape accusations, like all accusations of violent crime, are expected to be falsely reported. It does happen. But it doesn’t happen to 30 women at a time.
I know an unfortunate number of women who have been preyed upon and raped. You probably know more than you realize, as so many keep silent. And this film speaks to the culture, as much as the act of rape. How did these women see themselves? How much were they willing to withstand? Almost all of them question their own choices about the moment in which the line was crossed.
The world is filled with abusers less obvious than Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons, and on. The shame so many (including myself) feel about not screaming out earlier about horrors that were so apparent is still fresh. There are more billionaires around than ever. But you don’t have to be a billionaire to be an abuser. Just hop on Tik Tok and see the often healthy and often terribly unhealthy ways that young women see themselves today. Some perps may be out of the game. But there is still plenty of danger.
Filthy Rich: Jeffrey Epstein (Netflix) is the most like a traditional piece of documentary. Highly produced. Beautifully directed by Lisa Bryant. Impeccably edited. This is the story of the girls who became tethered to Jeffrey Epstein, from the first girls who would accuse him to the last days of his life, all in about 4 hours.
This is the most traditional streaming series true crime doc of the group. It starts at the beginning and ends at the end, with some cleverly graphic-ed time shifts throughout. Completely solid. Each episode subtly turns out to have a specific hook, even as the overall story progresses.
The show is not coy. Audience members want to know what these girls looked like when they were girls. And we see. But first, we see them as adults. We see how many of them looked a so similar. And we see how time has changed them. We hear their pain. We see their pain. We feel their pain.
People who are steeped in this story are not going to get huge surprises. Small revelations, perhaps. But mostly, it is the consistent, clear-minded, complete telling of the tale that keeps it so very shocking. And so very sad.
The only missing gear is really three of the girls who ended up being the primary recruiters for Epstein, as named in the legal case that was settled so disgustingly. Haley Robson, who acknowledges having recruited actively, speaks in the film. Nadia Marcinkova, Sarah Kellen, and Adriana Mucinska do not.
But the central through line of the film that really holds it all together are depositions of Epstein himself. His answers are not varied much. But hearing the questioner try to push him. And listening to him plead the 6th, 5th, and 12th over and over and over again, becomes his primary voice in the film. And it is very powerful.
As the film goes on, the idea of what Epstein’s world was like becomes more and more obvious, even as the viewer is unlikely to harbor any similar thoughts like Epstein. It becomes less and less about this young woman or that young woman and more clearly as cold and callous and heartless as it was… and the damage to the women, whichever part of the history they had, be more heated and pained and inescapable.
Watching these three films in a group will not leave you warm and fuzzy. But you may never be clearer on what young women face in this world we live in, even today. We’re still debating Roe, powerful men continue to harass young newcomers, and sex trafficking is not just for billionaires (though many continue the practice).
You will come out of this experience (and I would include Mrs. America, which also offers great complexity even as it wears its politics on its sleeve) reminded where your own heart is. Not always fun. But we must never forget the pain of others or the communal significance we each bring to the world.
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"Netflix, the great disrupter whose algorithms and direct-to-consumer platform have forced powerful media incumbents to rethink their economic models, now seems to need a big strategy change itself. It got me thinking about the simple idea that my film and TV production company Blumhouse is built on: If you give artists a lot of creative freedom and a little money upfront but a big stake in the movie’s or TV show’s commercial success, more often than not the result will be both commercial (the filmmakers are incentivized to make films that will resonate with audiences) and artistically interesting (creative freedom!). This approach has yielded movies as varied as Get Out (made for $4.5 million, with worldwide box office receipts of more than $250 million), Whiplash (made for $3.3 million, winner of three Academy Awards), The Invisible Man (made for $7 million, earned more than $140 million) and Paranormal Activity (made for $15,000, grossed more than $190 million).From the beginning, the most important strategy I used to persuade artists to work with me was to make radically transparent deals: We usually paid the artists (“participants” in Hollywood lingo) the absolute minimum allowable by union contracts upfront, with the promise of healthy bonuses based on actual box office results—instead of the opaque 'percentage points' that artists are usually offered. Anyone can see box office results immediately, so creators don’t quarrel with the payouts. In fact, when it comes time for an artist to collect a bonus based on box office receipts, I email a video clip of myself dropping the check off at FedEx to the recipient."
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