Nancy Schwartzman’s debut documentary feature premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Roll Red Roll, examines a high school sexual assault case in Steubenville, Ohio in the #MeToo era.
There’s something profound and perturbing about the fact that the opening credits of Roll Red Roll – a new film by Nancy Schwartzman, created with funding from the Ford Foundation – offers, to my knowledge, one of the best exemplars of what I would call the ‘alt-right aesthetic.’ It’s not a very well-documented form of style but is something immediately recognizable if I describe its tropes.
Angry electric guitar riffs cut through the opening titles, which depict football players running and jumping on one another while a mob cheers in the bleachers. The images are slightly pixelated, shown at different frame rates, as if emerging from a panoply of mobile devices or off the web pages of HTML sites like Reddit (subterfuge in social media is the hallmark of the Steubenville case we’re about to watch; it’s also a widely remarked trend today). The color red fills the screen: red is the fighting color for the Steubenville High School, but it has also, in recent years, come to stand for something far larger, and very different from its original political designation as a metonym for Communism. All in all, the feeling onscreen one of sensory overload, of images posted and reposted until their indexical significance is stripped away. While many documentaries espouse their ability to look clean and clear, foregrounding the information at hand, Schwartzman couldn’t have found a better way to introduce her subject.
Her subject is a case of violent rape perpetrated in Steubenville, Ohio by two high school football stars, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, on one sixteen-year-old girl referred to only as Jane Doe, on the night of August 11, 2012. The case made national headlines and drew many individuals across the globe into a town of 18,000. Being that most of the facts of the case are now out in the open, usually uncontested due to the striking number of documentation to be found in the matter, the film presents itself less as investigative journalism than as the final, archival presentation of these myriad points. But a second intention could be found as well. Similar to our national remembrance of the O.J. Simpson murder trial – which was renewed with vigor a couple years ago thanks to two television miniseries – the Steubenville rape case could instead be thought of in figurative relation to our political climate today – a parable, or sorts, with many warnings to offer.
To understand what I mean, look only to the players in this parochial slice of life. Steubenville, Ohio, “the birthplace of Dean Martin,” is in the red part of a (once) purple state and is the county seat of a very rural and religious area. Inserts of football jerseys and signs saying “Kick Off for Jesus” line the homes and yards of residents on both sides of the incident. Like something out of a David Lynch film, Steubenville was the scene of a crime involving people who were all pretty familiar with one another. Jane Doe blacked out from inebriation early in the night of the crime but is described by multiple sources as having clung to Trent Mays throughout because he was one of the only people she knew at a party thrown by students at another school. She met Ma’lik Richardson later that night when Mays began taking her places without her explicit consent.
The conclusion offers only a small modicum of ‘justice’ for Jane Doe, but gave the whole nation, if they paid close attention, a powerful lesson
She reported the crime with her parents the next morning, after waking up in a strange home without her underwear, flip-flops and earrings, and she submitted a rape kit, at which point the story spread largely through a local radio DJ reporting on the matter. From the DJ himself: “The girls at these parties sometimes drink too much… it’s easier to tell your parents you were raped than to say ‘hey mom and dad, I got drunk and let these guys have their way with me.’”
This sentiment is more or less repeated online by various members of the town, including parents who blame the victim and defend the boys. Minimization seems the trajectory of the incident until local crime blogger Alexandra Goddard does a little online investigating, and discovers that ‘rape’ is very much how the boys at the party were talking about it, both before and after the fact.
This may be the most disturbing part of the story, and also evidences a large aspect of today’s alt-right mentality, in the ability to say online what you would never admit in person. It also goes to show that posting or sharing something impulsively can haunt you to the grave.
Goddard screenshotted tweets from students at the party (“Song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana”), before they were deleted, and shared her results online. The narrative changed drastically. A friend of May’s had posted on Instagram a picture of the victim, unconscious and being picked up by her hands and feet by three young men, with the caption, “Sloppy.” Pictures surfaced of the victim’s naked body, which Mays had shared that night with a small group of friends who were unable go with him and Richardson to a friend’s house in the woods. Michael Nodianos, one of Mays’ friends, who is shown early in Roll Red Roll talks sheepishly to Detective J.P. Rigaud about expressing real concern for the victim, turns out to be the subject of a YouTube video where he rants giddily about the quality of the victim’s rape. “They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead because someone pissed on her,” he says. Detective Rigaud quickly discovers that the students in real life are far less reliable witnesses than their digital doppelgangers.
The Steubenville rape case could instead be thought of in relation to our political climate today – a parable, or sorts.
“On Christmas Day, that’s when the crap hit the fan,” Alexandra Goddard tells us. She’s referring to the online collective Anonymous, which helped bring greater national attention to the atrocity when they hacked the Steubenville High School website and posted a manifesto, declared behind a Guy Fawkes mask, that they were taking over the investigation. “We do not forgive. We do not forget,” the digitally modulated voice announced. Suddenly, Steubenville became a hotbed of protests, calling for justice to be brought against the perpetrators of the violence. Outsiders flooded the city and produced a small, prescient version of the #MeToo movement when many women came forward to compare their own experiences with that of Jane Doe. But the protests only divided the city further and gave the perception that the local police were not doing their job. In fact, they were nearly ready to go to trial.
In the end, Ma’lik Richardson, who delivered a sobbing apology to the victim’s family during sentencing, was given one year of juvenile detention for the rape. A stony and nonchalant Trent Mays was given the same sentence, plus a year extra for sending a photo of the victim to his friends – child pornography. “I should never have sent that photo,” he says by way of apology. So concludes a saga without much hope to offer us, but quite a lot of insight.
The ruling offers only a modicum of ‘justice’ for Jane Doe, but gave the whole nation, if they paid close attention, a powerful lesson on the abysmal state of rape culture, gender equality, and right to privacy which still make such an atrocity not unlikely to happen again. Four years later, Steubenville helped elect Donald Trump president, which many have taken as the white man’s revenge against all the forces of modern life that have tried to reduce his hegemony in the United States. Voters lashed out against plurality, against empathetic respect. Roll Red Roll, a straightforward documentary, by all means, transcends its subject by leaving this event strongly implicit in everything it says and shows, and the resulting effect is a sense of vital importance. Those who know the story of Steubenville’s Jane Doe, know the stakes of the battle against toxic masculinity.