There’s a popular Amy Schumer sketch based on the NBC television series Friday Night Lights. Where that television show (and the feature film it came from) involved a football coach dispensing wisdom to his team, Schumer’s take on the coach (hilariously played by Josh Charles) had him reminding the team of one thing: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Don’t rape.” The audience laughs at this team being so stupid they need a phrase like this in order to not get in trouble, but it opens things up to a grander issue involving privileged young men and the world of rape culture.
In the summer of 2012 a teen girl in Steubenville, Ohio woke up naked and confused about what transpired the night before. She was soon given a litany of photos of her body being violated by two prominent footballer players on the local football team. The ensuing rape case tore the town apart, opened up a powder keg of emotion, and became the first serious proof of rape culture in America.
Director Nancy Schwartzman makes her feature-length documentary debut with Roll Red Roll, capturing the townsfolk of Steubenville in the wake of a case that compelled everyone to look at themselves a little deeper. You know a documentary achieves its aims of informing its audience and rallying them to action when you’re actively screaming at the screen. What Schwartzman’s camera captures will make your blood boil. It isn’t just hearing about what the 16-year-old girl only known as Jane Doe went through, but seeing how cavalier everyone in town is in response to it.
Steubenville becomes ground zero for a discussion of what rape culture is through the lens of this particular crime. A parent asks how children can be raised believing their actions are okay and that is at the center of Schwartzman’s exploration of a town that elevated its sons at the expense of their daughters, to paraphrase Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell. Schwartzman starts by looking at social media, where the rapists and several of their male friends openly bragged about the “dead girl” they’d “trained.” Many used the word “rape” in their discussions, joking about committing a felony and being sent to jail. Later on, a video involving one of the witnesses laughing about how the girl was “deader than OJ’s wife” presents a shocking, if not altogether surprising, world where young boys find death and sex to be equally misconstrued. In watching these young boys giggling you almost wonder how they knew the girl was still alive and if that ever factored into their thinking.
The story of football players embroiled in a rape case is almost too familiar to be unique. But what Schwartzman wants to emphasize is not the boys in question, but the town that went to bat for them. This isn’t to say they’re let off the hook. Their own text messages damn them, proof of their crime and lack of remorse in the moment. But they could have only felt that way by being comfortable in a town they knew would support them. The phrases you often expect from rape apologists are trotted out: “I take rape seriously, but….” “these are good kids….” “in my day people were disciplined and we moved on.” The police interrogation of the local football coach is a master class in victim blaming, with the coach asking the players if they raped the girl or just “fucked her,” asking for a reclassification of the term rape – the lead detective’s quizzical response is priceless – and getting madder that the boys were drinking than anything else. Again, in the world of rape culture these reactions are to be expected.
The mitigating is high when it comes to the criminals and fervently cruel when it comes to the victim. There’s nothing surprising about hearing two young girls say the victim dressed provocatively and needed to take “responsibility” for the situation “she put herself in,” but it’s even sadder hearing these words from two young women who could have just as easily been victims themselves. With the adults acting as poorly as the children, it is sad that the numerous teens interviewed either failed to act or fail to see their own bias. The kids all understood what happened was wrong, but even when a witness is interviewed long after the two teens were convicted, he states his sadness at losing his friend and wishing he’d done more to “prevent putting him in that position” than the actual crime that took place.
Described as a town that’s not hospitable to women, the culture of bullying women is shown to run deep. A major player cited for breaking the case open is local crime blogger Alexandria Goddard. Goddard was the first to realize this would be swept under the rug and proceeded to save the open Facebook discussions and Instagram photos that popped up. She’d eventually face harassment and lawsuits by presumably “concerned” citizens. But Goddard, like most whistle-blowers, connects with the story on a deeper level, and that’s where Roll Red Roll turns the anger into action.
The camera captures the protests groups that descended upon Steubenville, with many women talking about “protecting” Jane Doe and sharing their stories. As one of the subjects interviewed says, “When you’re rapped, you wear a mask from the shame.” Hearing the voices of several women who suffered assault, a few from Steubenville football players, shows the systemic history of a town desperate to protect its men and fail its women. At one point Goddard and another Steubenville interview subject recount their own assaults, galvanized by the story to share their truths. It’s a powerful statement. They stood with the victim in a town where many wanted to push her aside.
Throughout the movie we’re treated to the smooth sounds of local Steubenville DJ, DJ Bloomdaddy whose thoughts on the case mimic the townsfolk. He vacillates and blames the girl before eventually saying “it was wrong BUT….” and that’s how Roll Red Roll is forced to leave things. The nature of a documentary won’t change how these people think about the assault and rape culture, but it needs to inspire conversation. Watching this documentary should make you angry and it will, but it’s an anger that, like the women who protested, can lead to catharsis and, hopefully, a change towards how we treat rape victims in America. Barbara Schwartzman creates a compelling narrative for change that will make you want to punch a man, and lead a revolution.
Roll Red Roll is in theaters now