Rape is a terrifying word that is shamefully familiar. But you will see it wielded strangely in the film Roll Red Roll. The people of Steubenville, Ohio, avoided its meaning and its consequence in the fall of 2012 when two high school football players were charged. The word was deployed, but with casual dismissal. Nancy Schwartzman‘s documentary explores a sexual assault case, but more than that it delves into the accepting culture surrounding it. The first voices you hear in the film are of boys drunkenly laughing, one exclaiming with prurient joy, “She is so raped right now!”
The context unfolds quickly from there. In August 2012, a teen Jane Doe reported to police that she had been assaulted after waking in a strange basement. She had no memory of how she got there, but she had attended some parties with a boy she knew. Later she received texts with photos of herself passed out, multiple people upon her. The photos were sent to her and also circulated widely. As many as 400,000 texts flew during and after the assault, witnesses sharing information and jokes and indictments of the girl’s character via social media. They called her “sloppy” or a “whore” for being “trained” by numerous guys. And yet she was unconscious during these acts, so unresponsive that some called her a “dead girl.” Some used the word “rape,” and yet nobody intervened. Very few even objected after the fact. Instead, the teens basked in the occurrence for its gossip recirculation value.
The doc keeps the girl’s identity hidden, as she was a minor. It reveals the boys’ identities and shows prolific accounting of the crime via social media archives. The guiding personality of the film is a blogger named Alexandria Goddard who initially tracked and re-posted this evidence via her site. She was disturbed by how defensive her community was and decided to hold a mirror up. After all, what was the purpose of taking photos and videos, of telling jokes on social media? Attention you wanted, and attention you got, kids. Goddard was ostracized and eventually sued for defamation.
Another central interviewee is an exasperated police officer, clearly also astonished by his community. He explains how he had to teach teens and adults alike about consent during his investigation. The footage of him questioning a football coach is maddening. He seemed to be the main disciplinarian of the boys, and yet he didn’t even suspend those players for drinking. He dismissed the rape because he “knows these boys, they are good boys.” The photos don’t lie, Coach. Interviews with young women in town reflect brutal victim-blaming: “She needs to take responsibility for her actions.” Her actions when she was unconscious? Statements like these are recycled scare tactics from parents. “Don’t get drunk because you never know what could happen to you when you are!” Because rape should be expected?
A big takeaway is that small towns place incredible value on social harmony, on the protection of their own. That can be incredibly dangerous. Their sports programs tend to be microcosms. The film mentions the girl was from “across the river,” therefore an outsider faced with two layers of denial, from the Big Red team and the community at large. She had no chance of sympathy, according to their politics of solidarity. More and more Steubenville residents incriminate the community itself on camera, whether they know it or not. And turns out, there was a similar assault in April of 2012. It was covered up by school officials.
So, the optics of rape were certainly grasped. As something that alters reputations, it should be buried. As if this kind of complex violation could be perpetually ignored. As if it didn’t have psychological and social impact that reverberates through communities for generations. Beside this doc, the 2018 novel Ohio is based on the case and imagines another devastating aftermath. Culture remembers.
The tide turned when outside reporters and Anonymous got involved with the case. There were powerful rallies outside the courthouse. Still, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond only got a year each in juvenile detention for assault. Trent got another year just for sharing the photos. It’s an infuriating outcome.
Roll Red Roll is a film that sticks with you. For its examination of the crime and the language surrounding it, and for illuminating an entire town’s truly ingrained misogyny, it is unforgettable. It should be used to teach teens about rape, beyond the incendiary word itself toward real understanding and consequence.