I was sitting inside the Interurban Hall of Muncie, Indiana's Horizon Convention Center when I found myself watching Nancy Schwartzman's riveting and unforgettable feature doc debut Roll Red Roll. I was in attendance at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault' Annual Conference and this experience, a public viewing of Roll Red Roll, was a late night experience after a full day of speakers, workshops, and trainings around the issue of sexual assault.
From the film's opening moments when you hear the semi-muffled sounds of a teenaged football player laughingly proclaiming "She is so raped right now," you know that you're in for a no-holds barred cinematic experience that refuses to compromise absolute truth for the sake of viewer comfort.
The film centers around the widely publicized 2012 assault of an intoxicated teenage girl by multiple members of the acclaimed and beloved Steubenville High School football team. It was a case magnified by the overwhelming electronic trail left by those who participated in the attack or, almost as unfathomably, those who were present and failed to stop it. If you've ever questioned the role of toxic masculinity in rape culture, not that that's something that should ever be questioned, any doubt at all will be gone after watching Roll Red Roll.
The assault, while not quite dismissed initially, seemed to be fairly close to getting swept under the rug thanks to a toxic culture where prize athletes were worshipped as gods regardless of the costs to the community. It's only when a relatively popular crime blogger named Alexandria Goddard begins investigating the case and unearths a digital trail so precise it practically serves as a timeline that the case begin to attract widespread attention. After members of the Steubenville community attempted to squelch Goddard's voice by filing a defamation lawsuit, attention to the case exploded with coverage by Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell, whose coverage attracted national and international attention and, perhaps most noteworthy, the vengeful wrath of hackers extraordinaire Anonymous.
Being from Indianapolis, I couldn't help but reflect upon the 1965 case of Sylvia Likens, a very different case in facts but similar in regard to how it reflected multiple perpetrators and even more people, mostly minors, from the neighborhood who stood by and did nothing until Likens's eventual death in October 1965.
In this case the victim, identified only as "Jane Doe" throughout the film, survives the attack which details would eventually show happened over the course of a night that began with a pre-season party and would eventually involve three locations and multiple perpetrators, though only two were eventually charged with the crime - star quarterback Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond.
While it may be tempting to think that a film about a case that was so vividly played out in the media might have nothing new to say, Roll Red Roll has much to say and says it in such a way that this isn't a film you're likely to easily forget.
Investigative interviews by lead investigator J.P. Rigaud are brought vividly to life, interviews that initially reveal teens more committed to protecting their sports stars than a young rape victim and fueling local media to amp up the volume on rather unrelentless victim blaming and character shaming. Rigaud was certain to defend local investigators as having been working on the case long before Goddard's more comprehensive investigative work, though there's little denying that everything began to shift when Goddard began to uncover photos and videos, all of which had been shared widely on social media, that reflected the brutality of the attack and the complete and utter humiliation inflicted by Jane Doe's attackers. When Anonymous became involved? There was literally no denying that rape had occurred, though proving it in a court of law would prove to be more than a little bit of a challenge.
Roll Red Roll had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 and has picked up several fest prizes along its extended festival journey including prizes at Florida Film Festival (Grand Jury Award, Best Documentary Feature), Nantucket Film Festival (Adrienne Shelley Excellence in Filmmaking Award), Monmouth Film Festival (Jury Award, Best Documentary Feature), BendFilm Festival (Best of Show), and several others.
Roll Red Roll powerfully depicts rape culture in a society where proof of our actions is often readily available. It also unforgettably illustrates the relentless victim blaming culture that is only now starting to see a shift, while it's also a powerful reminder that even when there is some sort of justice served it's often minimal and that often has ripples for years to come. From football coach Reno Saccoccia's cringeworthy statements that he was all prepared to suspend the players for their underage drinking but decided not to because then others might assume they were guilty of everything else, to school superintendent Mike McVey, whose statements make you wonder how such a human being, and I use that term lightly, could end up in a position of leading a school district.
Roll Red Roll will have a screening on PBS in June of this year. For survivors, it's the kind of film best experienced with a trusted companion as it's undeniably a trigger film. For advocates, activists and those involved in sexual assault, Roll Red Roll is a raw, unshakeable and must see documentary.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic