Roll Red Roll
Director/ Nancy Schwartzman
Watched on P.O.V.
Schwartzman’s film examines the rape of a high school girl by two of her classmates, football players from the local Steubenville, Ohio team. It’s a story that gained national headlines after the tweets and texts surrounding the incident–two young men raping their inebriated, passed-out victim, egged on by friends–revealed the rape culture that was prevalent among players and supervisors. There is an enterprising crime blogger who broke the story, the backlash against her, interrogation video of the boys involved, and a surprise intervention by the anarchic hacker group Anonymous, who–to their credit–put the story on the national stage. It’s a searing and disgusting story, and Schwartzman tells it well, with a clear, economical structure that positions her film as both a social justice call-to-action and as a true crime exposé.
Yet Roll Red Roll, despite its judicious choices and journalistic integrity, also includes many of the stock elements common in these types of films. There are the banal establishing shots of Steubenville’s streets and neighborhoods, used as background wallpaper for the players’ texts that appear on screen, or as placeholders for the interviews and the VO audio of a local talk jock. There are unnecessary quick cut-ins of the talking heads of the interviews despite the fact that while they’re talking, we already see them on screen driving, walking, working on their laptop, etc. There is the prerequisite portrait of a community gung-ho for the masculine rituals of football. There is the machine-tooled editing and subtle fade-ins of ominous music that is de rigueur among headline documentaries.
And then there are the several attempts at painfully obvious “representation,” that overriding need among directors and producers to make sure they tick all of the appropriate soundbite boxes: the shifty school superintendent seen once and never heard from again, the big city investigative reporter who we never really see investigating anything, the two girls who say the raped girl should have known better (what do other girls think?), and the one friend who wishes he’d been there to stop his rapist buddy before he went too far (Was he the only friend? Are there more? What about friends who say the rapist was actually a douchebag?).
There is also a family who has absolutely nothing to do with the story who seems to represent, I assume, the normal middle class of Steubenville. Husband, wife, a bunch of kids of varying ages. We get a soundbite from the man early in the film, and a soundbite later from the woman, both expressing a mild despair that this happened in their town. But shouldn’t audience identification with the awfulness of the crime be enough to get this point across?
These extraneous detours add little to understanding the crime which, by film’s end, falls into that woeful category of bro culture run amok. Schwartzman paints for us a horrifying picture of the rape. But the victim blaming, and then the inevitable public airing at a courthouse protest by many other women of their own rape and abuse histories, are presented in shorthand strokes, as if, again, the film is making sure it hits its marks.
Does a film documenting what turns out to be a complex crime that strikes at the heart of a corrupting infection among young men in our society, really need to spend so much screen time flying the banner of wokeness? Or are these elements included to satisfy the prerogatives of the grant orgs funding the film? Whatever the motivation, these distractions only serve to dilute the film’s powerful central objectives.