Even if you’re familiar with the 2012 high school rape case out of Steubenville, Ohio, that turned a global spotlight on the football-mad city’s permissive culture of reckless behavior, social-media shamelessness and victim-blaming, you still won’t be fully prepared for the sickening totality of Nancy Schwartzman’s chilling documentary about the incident and its aftermath, “Roll Red Roll.”
Measured and atmospheric, like a dread-inducing horror film, it starts with placid nighttime shots of home-lined streets and unsettling audio of snickering teenage boys, one of whom says with creepy glee, “She is so raped right now.”
The victim that long August night was an intoxicated, unconscious 16-year-old teenage girl, and the accused boys were classmates, members of the storied local football team. When police arrested 17-year-old Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond for the assault, the city rallied around the boys in what was presented as a he-said-she-said situation, one in which the girl’s mere presence in an alcohol-fueled party atmosphere was reason enough to scoff at the idea that she didn’t have some complicity.
What changed was the attention local crime blogger Alexandra Goddard gave the case when she mined the Internet for a real-time social media account of the night’s events, as posted by the players themselves in the throes of abhorrent boastfulness. Naturally figuring a mass deletion might occur in the wake of the arrests (and press coverage that was then scant), Goddard captured and published a trove of soul-rattling photos, comments and videos, igniting a firestorm reaction of outrage, not to mention the attention of national news outlets, and the righteous hacker collective Anonymous.
Soon the entire town was under scrutiny for fostering a look-the-other-way culture that, as Cleveland Plain Dealer investigative reporter Rachel Dissell suggests in the film, might have put “its daughters at risk by protecting its sons.” That’s an easy conclusion to draw when Schwartzman shows us police interview footage of hemming and hawing football coach Reno Saccoccia weakly defending his decision not to even deploy the school’s no-tolerance alcohol policy on his players, saying suspending the boys “would make them look guilty.”
It’s not even the most infuriating part of the clip. When lead investigator J.P. Rigaud then has to explain the definition of rape to this supposed authority figure over young men, you may feel like instituting your own no-tolerance policy, toward willful apologists for sexual assault.
Schwartzman’s careful narrative derives its power not just from the archived depravity that gave prosecutors plenty of evidence, and the sober recollections of key figures like Goddard and Rigaud, but the troubling inquiry – with no simple answers – at the heart of the case: How did peer pressure get this toxic? Where was anyone’s conscience? Where was the adult supervision? As for that last issue, state law enforcement attempted to address it a year later with a fresh round of charges that revealed an earlier, unreported assault on a 14-year-old girl.
But can you even call what happened in Steubenville an example of a town having dark secrets when these fresh-faced rapists celebrated what they did on forums viewable by anybody? “Roll Red Roll” is about what happens when a crime’s outrage only begins with the cold facts, expanding as one realizes that this is behavior bred, encouraged, accepted and shielded from punishment: an offensive line that could make any perpetrator feel like a star quarterback.
Not only that, some of the more nauseating details in “Roll Red Roll” — callous texts and vicious comments, like the 12-minute video of one heartless boy making “dead girl” jokes about his friends’ sexual assault aren’t even illegal, as lead special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter acknowledges with a weariness that you can tell comes from experience. As “Roll Red Roll” makes clear, even slam-dunk justice isn’t completely satisfying when you look at the culture of unabashed misogyny that poisons the well in the first place.
‘Roll Red Roll’
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: Opens April 5 at Laemmle Monica Film Center