Director Nancy Schwartzman delivers a hard-hitting portrait of a small Ohio town that is forced to reconcile with a culture that keeps women from coming forward about assault and the technology that helped a young woman find justice. (AG: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
[Content warning for mentions of sexual assault]
Budding director Nancy Schwartzman had already created a life dedicated to ending violence against women and girls prior to her feature film debut Roll Red Roll. Her background in media has led her to work on short form documentaries about consent and sexuality as well as towards the development of the app Circle of 6 that helps its users to quickly notify people if a date has gone awry¹. Her newest work adds to her impressive portfolio and establishes her as an important filmmaker to keep our eyes on. Documentary Roll Red Roll follows the work of online true crime blogger Alexandria Goddard as she uses the internet to piece together the story of a sexual assault. From here, the community of one small town is forced to reconcile with a culture that protects its high school sports teams and allows its women to undergo violence and victim blaming as a result.
Schwartzman gives us an unflinching view of the process of bringing rapists Trent Mayes and Ma’lik Richmond to court and the attitudes that prevailed in Steubenville, Ohio during their investigation. The unabashed rape culture that allowed their unnamed victim and countless other young women to be violated falls under interrogation in this portrait of the town. Early scenes of Detective J. P. Rigaud questioning the high school football coach are infuriating to watch. The coach seems to be doing everything in his power to excuse himself from turning a blind eye to the situation, citing his desire to protect the boys from the social media outrage that ensued.
The director pulls from sports radio stations condemning Jane Doe for what they perceive as fabricated charges against the players, as well as horrific YouTube videos from the perpetrators close friends showing them joking about the incident. Slowly, she pieces together the attitude of the town and calls out those who benefit from the rampant misogyny. It’s refreshing to see such a bold and confident stand from Schwartzman. So often we are told that jokes are nothing more than jokes and “boys will be boys.” By allowing the audience to understand the impacts that these jokes can have by normalizing abusive behaviors Roll Red Roll argues otherwise, and rightly so.
The star at the center of this film, Alexandria Goddard, asks every question that everyone else feels afraid to ask. When the case was brought to her attention she turned to the internet, sifting through online profiles of people who were present the night of the assault and archiving thousands of tweets, before posting her blog entry on the events of that night. The results were mortifying. It was clear that other students knew what was going to happen to Jane Doe long before anything did. Goddard rightly asks why no one came to the victims defense then, if the internet was already well aware of the danger that she faced. Here, Roll Red Roll holds a mirror up to our culture and asks it to examine the ways that women are failed. What has to change in order for women’s pains to not be seen as the next twitter sensation?
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this film was the way that Schwartzman worked around keeping Jane Doe’s identity anonymous. The void left by Jane Doe is filled with the words of other sexual assault survivors and activists, which allows the film an almost tangible presence of allyship and solidarity throughout. Goddard echoes the thoughts of the filmmaker as she discusses the worry she has that keeping the case alive will re-traumatize the victim. Keeping this in consideration, the director toes the line between careful exposure and spectacle with caution, using the victims story as a backdrop to discuss the larger issue of rape culture on campuses in a hard-hitting and honest way.
© Anika Guttormson (4/3/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: IMDB
Q: Does Roll Red Roll pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Even though Roll Red Roll doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test I give it a pass for its deep look into rape culture and how men’s actions can solidify a group mindset that actively harms women.
Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
As someone who grew up on the Internet, I often wonder how my life would have been different if I didn’t have that constant access to communication and information. With Roll Red Roll, we interestingly get to see two opposing aspects of the Internet’s effects on us–on the one hand, it emboldens rapists to post photographic evidence of their crimes for their whole community to see. On the other, it allows the vulnerable of that community to organize against them, using their self-disclosed evidence to bring them the consequences they never expected to face. I gave a little internal cheer when the hacker collective Anonymous showed up in the film, since I know the part of the Internet Anonymous tends to inhabit is often stereotyped as being a hotbed of alt-righters.
In the end, I think the good of the Internet comes through much more than the bad, since through the Internet even the disgusting documentation of this crime became an opportunity for people to ensure justice was done. Towns like Steubenville tend to enforce silence through strict social codes, so the experience of Jane Doe might have gone unremarked (as such experiences do every single day, even now) if Goddard hadn’t been able to use the Internet to agitate for transparency. Say what you will about 4Chan, but without Twitter the movement in support of Jane Doe (and the #MeToo movement, and the protest at Standing Rock, and so many more) would never have happened.