Roll Red Roll | Docs/ology

Roll Red Roll

Director: Nancy Schwartzman

Runtime: 80 minutes

Evil thrives in the shadows.

On August 11, 2012, two teen boys raped a 16-year-old girl in and near Steubenville, Ohio. The girl was drunk and, for most of the night, unresponsive. Some of the boys’ friends were there too—watching, laughing, taking pictures. The next morning, the girl woke up in someone else’s basement, naked and without her phone.

But it wasn’t just the horrific act itself that warranted Roll Red Roll, a critically lauded documentary directed by Nancy Schwartzman (airing tonight [JUNE 17] on POV, PBS’s long-running feature-length documentary series). It’s how much of Steubenville rallied behind the accused rapists—who were members of the town’s popular and successful football team.

Boys will be boys, some suggested. Many pointed a finger at the victim: One student reminded us that the girl was drunk and at a party she probably shouldn’t have been at anyway. “When you put yourself in that situation, you have to take some responsibility for your actions,” she said. Discipline was left up to the football team’s head coach, who didn’t even suspend them. Many residents hoped the story would simply go away.

But while evil may thrive in the shadows, in the age of social media it’s harder for it to stay in them.

Two weeks after the rape, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard unearthed scads of tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram missives from teens talking about it and showing horrific disregard for the victim. She published a photo of the girl being carried from one party to another. Investigative reporter Rachel Dissell, writing for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, soon started working the story, too. Then the online activists of Anonymous got into the act—hacking into a high school website and posting a video of students laughing about the assault.

“You don’t need foreplay on a dead girl,” one giggles, referencing the victim’s unconscious state.

Roll Red Roll is difficult viewing. It can be excruciating. Even though we never see or even hear from the victim herself (outside one or two heavily blurred and edited pictures and a handful of texts she sent out in the aftermath), we hear enough about what happened that night to shock and sicken.

But as hard as it can be to watch, Roll Red Roll is an important documentary—not just to illuminate what happened in Steubenville, but to remind us how blind we can be.

“Is this football town putting its daughters at risk by protecting its sons?” Investigative reporter Rachel Dissell asks in the film. But I don’t think this football town is necessarily all that unusual. When one of our favorite athletes or celebs or politicians is accused of wrongdoing, how many of us are quick to doubt and dismiss the allegations? How many of us—against all odds and, sometimes, against all reason—would fiercely protect what we love and value?

Remember, Steubenville loved its football team. For decades, that team brought the community together. Even Schwartzman said in the film’s notes, “The entire town of Steubenville coming together to celebrate and stand together every Friday is a beautiful thing.” It shouldn’t surprise us that those who understood that beauty would want to ignore or gloss over the rot underneath.

In the movie, one defender of the now-convicted rapists admits that the boys probably did something wrong. But he insists that it’s not so unusual. This sort of thing probably happens in lots of other towns.

And you know what? He’s probably right.

Written by Paul Asay