This is the latest in a wave of documentary films that seek to do justice to what some might say for a long time.
This follows the New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” which was released on FX and Hulu this month. This film examines how the 39-year-old pop star has faced invasive scrutiny for years and asks why Spears’ dad, Jamie, still serves as a curator and controls his financial decisions.
The two follow two 2019 TV documentaries, “Surviving R. Kelly” and “Leaving Neverland,” which detail sexual assault allegations against singers R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, tarnishing their legacy and leading some media to shut down. to play their music. Kelly and Jackson’s representatives have denied the charges.
We live in a time of “cancellation culture”. In a time when many performers have been tarnished by their misdeeds and the #MeToo movement demands swift punishment, we seem faster than ever to convict offenders.
But these documentaries don’t exactly negate their famous subjects – they reexamine accusations of wrongdoing and sometimes put a thumb on the scales of justice.
The movies don’t contain many bombs, as the allegations they detail are already known. But some have succeeded in changing public opinion and being held accountable to the celebrities who circumvented the punishment. Call it “the culture of consequences”.
For example, “Framing Britney Spears” elicited an apology from singer Justin Timberlake, who dated Spears in the late 1990s and early 2000s and appeared to call her a “horrible woman” in the song’s lyrics. after their breakup.
“There is a feeling that accountability is often unavailable in court, especially when celebrities are involved,” says Dr Allison Covey, an ethicist at Villanova University whose work focuses on pop culture. “Condemnation by (the) media seems an alternative route to justice.”
Here’s why these documents have an impact.
Television has a unique power to influence public opinion
Until recently, a filmmaker with a new documentary was lucky enough to get a handful of screenings at film festivals and college campuses. Public television broadcast documentary films. The theatrical releases were rare.
But streaming television, with its seemingly bottomless programming pool, changed all that. Platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO Max take documentaries, break them into series into parts, and give them high-profile premieres.
Last month’s premiere of “Tiger,” HBO’s two-part documentary about the rise and fall of golfer Tiger Woods, drew 639,000 viewers across all platforms in one day. Mix in the collateral chatter on social media and the viewers who aired the episode later and that’s a lot of eyeballs – and a lot of chance to influence perceptions.
“Celebrity documentaries overlap a lot with our growing fascination with real crime,” says Covey, Professor Villanova. Documentaries like ‘Framing Britney Spears’ and ‘Tiger King’ offer a mystery to be solved or a conspiracy to be unraveled. Viewers are drawn to the invitation to formulate their own theories and often enthusiastically share them on social media, generating even more interest in the documentary. “
Take the example of R. Kelly, one of the biggest R&B stars of the 1990s. Kelly’s reputation has long been marred by accusations of sexual criminality and inappropriate encounters with girls and young women. BuzzFeed published an investigative article in July 2017 in which two groups of parents accused R. Kelly of keeping their daughters in an abusive “cult”. Kelly’s lawyer denied the allegations and one of the young women denied being brainwashed by the singer. Kelly continued to record and tour.
Then came January 2019 and the Lifetime “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries, which described the history of the sexual misconduct allegations against the singer. The series featured emotional tales of several alleged victims and drew over 26 million viewers.
Kelly was abandoned several weeks later by RCA, her label. The following month, an Illinois grand jury charged him with 10 counts of sexual abuse involving teenage girls. Federal charges of sex crimes quickly followed in Illinois and New York. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all counts and is awaiting trial. Lifetime released a sequel, “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” in early 2020.
Journalists can also tell extremely compelling stories in print media, but they usually don’t do the same.
“I think visual storytelling in any form will have a more emotional impact on audiences than print journalism,” says Ted Mandell, who teaches documentary film production at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s that human connection that an audience has with a subject of the film that makes a documentary in many cases so compelling. And the power of the camera to tell stories without words, to allow the audience to experience life in real time, to read facial expressions, (to) interpret information visually and audibly. “
More documentaries take a point of view
By its very nature, a documentary film built around tearful allegations of criminal behavior can seem one-sided. Woody Allen declined to be interviewed for “Allen v. Farrow ”. The docu-series includes interviews with Dylan Farrow, his mother Mia Farrow, and his brother Ronan Farrow, while Allen’s version of events is largely taken from reading the audiobook of his autobiography.
Allen again denied the allegations and criticized HBO’s docu-series in a new statement to The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “These documentary makers weren’t interested in the truth. Instead, they spent years collaborating surreptitiously with the Farrows and their facilitators to set up hatchet work. riddled with lies. “
But as CNN’s Brian Lowry writes in a review of the series, “There is no doubt about the sympathies of the filmmakers.”
Covey believes public perception of the documentary film has been altered by reality TV.
“The hope that documentaries will remain objective, seeking to educate and inform, has largely vanished,” she says. “Particularly with films appearing on popular streaming services like Netflix, viewers expect to be emotionally immersed in the story; to be entertained rather than educated. The filmmakers are free to arouse our compassion and righteous indignation. so that objective expectations of journalistic ethics tend to discourage news coverage. “
Mandell, the Notre Dame professor, believes that documentaries’ review of pop culture icons and their controversies “is less about condemning bad guys than about empathizing with the victims. Humanizing their stories.”
Today, as details of the personal lives of celebrities are shared and dissected extensively on social media, a documentary filmmaker may think that taking a famous person is no longer enough to take a direct photo, says David Resha, associate professor of film and media at Oxford. College of Emory University.
“We are currently more likely to see celebrity documentaries with a point of view because so much of celebrity lives are constantly available to us,” he says. “Each documentary must answer the question, ‘What are you telling the audience that they don’t already know? It’s a harder question to ask about characters whose lives have been so pervasive in our lives. “
So, what impact will “Allen v. Farrow” have on what remains of Allen’s career? The Los Angeles Times calls the HBO docuseries “a nail in the coffin of Woody Allen’s legacy.” IndieWire claims that “Allen v. Farrow” could bring “cultural justice” if not criminal justice.
It’s hard to say. You can argue that Allen, 85, is already being canceled. In recent years, Amazon waived a four-movie deal with him, and his original publisher dropped his memoir (it was later published by a smaller press).
Then again, whenever there is money to be made, a fallen star’s career may never die. Michael Jackson’s songs still resonate on radios around the world. Allen’s 2019 film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” grossed $ 22 million, although it was never released in the United States.
Maybe it comes down to something Mia Farrow says in the HBO document. “It doesn’t matter what is true,” she said. “What matters is what we believe.”
Farrow refers to how Allen’s career has survived allegations of sexual abuse for decades. She could also describe the power of a celebrity documentary to persuade viewers – and exert consequences.
The first episode of “Allen v. Farrow” premiered Sunday on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.