A documentary covering the Steubenville rape case, Roll Red Roll is exactly as brutal and hard to watch as you would expect–and consequently fairly essential viewing, as all the attitudes it documents are still not only alive but thriving. Director Nancy Schwartzmann examines the coverage of the case, with particular attention to the way the various suspects–and, almost more hauntingly, various bystanders and even entirely uninvolved internet commenters–effectively convicted themselves on social media. (Not that it really mattered, in the end, since the punishments in even the most severe cases amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.) It’s genuinely difficult to sit through the display of some of the tweets and video recordings the rapists made, often punctuated, of course, by chummy laughter: “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Roll Red Roll could be a sledgehammer, and it does hit like one, but Schwartzmann has goals beyond deadening the viewer’s will to live. The film digs into the pervasiveness of rape culture, the way fresh-faced teenage girls explain that the victim needed to accept her part of the responsibility for her rape, the way a local tries to prove his feminist bona fides by referring to rape only as “the r word” while maintaining that “nine times out of ten” football players having sex with unconscious girls apparently isn’t rape, the way an older man blithely says that things were different in his day, the way everyone universally seems to think they should be able to say whatever they want about the victim as long as they first say that rape is bad. (As long as the rapists are someone else’s problem.) I don’t know if there’s anything more vile than the goal-post moving done by one of the defendants’ lawyers, though, who maintains, straight-faced, that the victim giving the players her phone passcode earlier in the night could be termed a form of consent to what later happened. And so Roll Red Roll makes its point: the rape is horrifying, the rapists’ behavior even outside of it was horrifying and cruel, and the feet-dragging on the case was unconscionable–and all of it is just a more blatantly visible example of an enormous, mostly-invisible part of American culture. A key moment in the documentary is when various women come together outside the courthouse, emboldened by Anonymous, to discuss what once happened to them. There are so many voices there.
It would be nice to think that their courage in speaking up changed things, but here in 2020, things don’t necessarily look that different from 2012. This problem is in the bedrock, Roll Red Roll demonstrates, and fixing it will take a cultural upheaval on par with an earthquake. Sadly, the rape and humiliation of an underage girl is too everyday an event to qualify.