If there’s a more hideous phrase in the language than “rape culture,” one would be hard-pressed to name it. Nancy Schwartzman’s documentary Roll Red Roll examines the phenomenon through the prism of the infamous 2012 rape of a teenage girl by the star players of a Steubenville, Ohio, football team. The film, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, documents the case in such a powerful fashion that your feelings of outrage will persist long after the movie is over.
What’s truly scary about the incident at the film’s center is how many similar but ignored cases must exist. This one, which took place in a town whose biggest claim to fame is being the birthplace of Dean Martin, came to light mainly through the endless social media posts of the perpetrators and their enablers that exposed the horrific crime.
Difficult to watch, but essential viewing.
Roll Red Roll begins with audio excerpts from a sickening recording in which we hear male high-schoolers laughing while making such comments as “She is so raped right now!” and “This is the funniest thing ever!” They’re talking about a girl identified only as “Jane Doe,” who went to a series of parties, became increasingly inebriated and was sexually assaulted. We’re then introduced to the lead investigator on the case, Detective J.P. Rigaud, and the primary suspects, high school football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who were arrested a week later.
The local police weren’t the ones to break the case, however. It was a crime blogger named Alexandria Goddard who caught wind of it and exhaustively combed through the students’ social media postings and republished the most damning of them online, including screen captures of many of their tweets. For her troubles, Goddard was reviled by the town, which closed ranks around its star football players, and was sued for defamation of character. Her work came to the attention of Rachel Bissel, an investigative reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose stories about the case brought it to national and international attention.
The film includes extensive excerpts from the videotaped interrogations conducted by Rigaud with a number of students as well as the football coach, who seems more intent on protecting his players than getting to the truth. He tells the detective that he didn’t suspend Mays and Richmond because it would have made them look guilty.
The hacking group Anonymous later became involved, blasting the cover-up being perpetrated by the town and publishing a leaked video online featuring several of the male students making fun of the victim and cackling over what happened to her. The group subsequently organized a protest rally in which several women revealed their own harrowing tales about being raped.
The filmmaker relates the story with compelling tension, with a few surprises toward the end, including the revelation of charges being filed against four Steubenville High School officials involving an earlier incident that had gone unreported and an incident from blogger Goddard’s past that provides insight as to her passionate feelings about the case.
Roll Red Roll, the title of which refers to the slogan of the high school football team about which the town seems ridiculously obsessed, doesn’t simply elucidate the facts behind the particular case at its center. It provides a powerful depiction of the blame-the-victim culture that has so long dominated the national discussion about rape and which only now thankfully seems to be receding. Although there’s clearly a long, long way to go.
Production: company Sunset Park Pictures
Director: Nancy Schwartzman
Producers: Nancy Schwartzman, Jessica Devaney, Steven Lake
Director of photography: Matt Bockelman
Editor: Christopher White
Composer: Nima Fakhrara
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)