In 2012, Steubenville, Ohio made national news. During a party, members of the local high school football team sexually assaulted a teenage girl. The particulars of the case were shocking, as was the manner in which they were brought to light. The documentary Roll Red Roll takes us through the entire tragic situation. Even if you think you know the whole story from the news coverage, the film's in-depth look is profoundly devastating. This is one of the most important viewing experiences of the year.
At the center of the story is a teenage girl, referred to as Jane Doe. She became incapacitated by alcohol at a pre-season football party. Several of the players took advantage of Jane. They moved her to two other parties, and at the third, they undressed her and sexually assaulted her. Roll Red Roll interviews police detective J.P. Rigaud, who takes us through the steps of how he investigated the case, which was made more complicated by the fact that teens are often reluctant to inform on their friends. In the end, he arrested two culprits, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, for the crime. Video footage of Rigaud's interrogations of those present at the parties is chilling. You really get a sense of how apathetic most of the teens were to Jane Doe's plight. Many thought it was funny.
Even more shocking is how social media played a role in unveiling the events of that evening. Blogger Alexandria Goddard figures prominently in the movie. After hearing about the case, she scoured the Twitter and Instagram accounts of the students, discovering that they had openly posted about seeing a rape. One kid even posted pictures of Jane Doe. In exploring this aspect of the case, Roll Red Roll shows how the compulsion of teenagers to document every moment of their lives on social media is a potential game-changer in terms of exposing inappropriate behavior.
Director Nancy Schwartzman uses the Steubenville case to examine how rape culture works. The predictable self-protection machine took over in the town, as some residents tried to excuse the incident away. A fair amount of victim-blaming also took place, with people defending the players by pointing out that the girl was heavily intoxicated and “shouldn't have been there.” Even years later, a few locals seen on-camera continue to deny that what happened to Jane Doe was a big deal. Of course, the powerful presentation of the case's facts and the words of the students who were there that night give lie to that notion. It's impossible to walk away from this film thinking that what Mays and Richmond did was a youthful mistake or a case of “boys being boys.”
If anything, Roll Red Roll could have delved even more into the psychology behind rape culture. As we've seen in everything from the Catholic Church child sexual abuse cover-up to the Penn State scandal, people tend to want to protect the institution when horrific allegations are made. None of the townsfolk who try to defend the players is challenged on why they opt to sell out Jane Doe, despite overwhelming evidence of the boys' guilt.
That minor issue doesn't diminish the sheer power of the film too much. Roll Red Roll remains a vital look at sexual assault in America, as well as a jarring wake-up call about what otherwise “good” teenagers are capable of.
out of four
Roll Red Roll unrated, but contains adult language and mature subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.