Released in theaters as a film in limited release during March 2019, “Roll Red Roll” now streaming on Netflix, is a disturbing look at the phenomenon of sexual assault that is all too common among US teens and young adults. “Roll Red Roll” received a score of 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
The participants, from the student athletes, the students who knew the victim, coaches, law enforcement officials and the blogger who made the incident widely known, are all compelling in their own ways. Even when viewers disagree with their statements and actions. The film provokes thought about ethics, morals and how those are challenged when it comes to what some young people call a good time.
“Roll Red Roll”: an all-American city with an all too common problem
The incident at issue in the film takes places in Steubenville, Ohio. In some ways, the small city has a bit of yesteryear charm. However, its citizens, especially the teens, are not left behind in terms of technology. That plays a role as investigators attempt to find out who sexually abused Jane Doe. The young woman is never named, which is understandable. But there are tweets, texts and posts among the young men who either participated or witnessed the abuse of Jane Doe.
The story is a familiar one: small city with a fantastic football team, has coaches and citizens willing to believe that the players on that team can do no wrong. And when some of them are accused of sexual assault, the town is divided. Further, there seems to be a good number of people willing to blame the victim.
What some viewers might find disturbing is what could be called the callous behavior of the young men. The voiceovers at the beginning of the film are of the young men discussing what happened to Jane Doe, and the conversation seems at odds with the scenery depicted- – which is a Rockwellian series of houses. Young men laugh about a young woman’s misfortune. Later, a video of the same conversation will be shown. Seeing the speakers does not make the information easier to take. To see the sheer glee on one boy’s face as he makes joke after joke about the incident is sickening. That only one player speaks up to remind the others that what they did is a felony, is disheartening, but at least there was one empathic and reasonable voice in the cacophony.
All of the usual elements are present: a girl who had too much to drink; the same girl thinking she could trust the boys she got a ride from; coaches making excuses for athletes; townspeople who do not believe such a thing could happen in Steubenville and, of course, victim-blaming.
But, things get a bit interesting and hopeful after a local blogger finds the social media posts of students involved. That blogger is sued by the family of one of the suspected participants for defamation. The New York Times picks up the story; Anonymous gets involved. A protest at the Steubenville courthouse when the trial starts finds women putting on (and sometimes subsequently taking off) their Anonymous masks and telling their own stories of sexual assault via microphones and speakers to support Jane Doe.
In some ways, justice was served, but the sentences handed down are almost as bothersome as the attitudes that were prevalent throughout the film. To hear boys laughing about an inebriated girl who couldn’t move and was therefore asking for it, is chilling. Long after the reality of the sentencing has settled into the consciousness of viewers, the laughter of boys who think that sexually assaulting a semi-conscious girl is okay, will echo with chilling clarity.