Roach: Trio of films strip the emperor’s clothes

‘Making a Murderer,' 'Spotlight' and 'The...
Roach: Trio of films strip the emperor’s clothes

The gray, bleak days of winter are always good for watching movies.

This year provided a powerful trio of films that laid bare the venality of our most hallowed institutions and left us screaming at our screens. There’s nothing like curling up in a comfortable chair to enjoy some good old-fashioned hypocrisy.

The three works–Spotlight, The Hunting Ground and Making a Murderer–strip the emperor’s clothes from the Catholic Church, America’s universities and the justice system of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Spotlight tells the too-familiar tale of the Catholic Church in Boston, and how it systematically abetted priests who committed child rape and sexual assault by moving them from parish to parish to abuse children again. And again. Spotlight gives a better understanding of how the global crimes of the church were brought to light by a team of earnest Boston Globe reporters, many of them Catholic. It also makes someone raised a Catholic feel ashamed all over again.

The Hunting Ground takes a withering look at how the finest universities in our land, staffed by pedigreed academics espousing the purest of values, callously marginalize female students who dare report rape or sexual assault on their campuses. The film illustrates how too often image protection trumps justice. The film stars a handful of brave young victims who smartly bring legal action against more than seventy colleges and universities for Title IX violations. Schools under federal investigation include Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. The film also reveals that sometimes when campus spokeshumans somberly proclaim that they “take these issues very seriously,” they actually don’t.

Finally, as 2015 wound down, Netflix treated the world to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Making a Murderer. This epic documentary series examines a murder case and the “fine people” in law enforcement who turned out not to be so fine at all. Unless you consider grilling an impaired sixteen-year-old for hours without legal or parental representation, while his court-appointed defense team conspires with prosecution to convict the kid, as “fine” work.

The series also chronicles the struggles of the Manitowoc people as they attempt to speak in the past tense.

So what lessons are there to be learned from these films?

First, we should maintain a healthy objectivity, even skepticism, toward the institutions that serve us. We can’t allow the trappings of power to cow us, and smother the truth. We have to push our institutions to step out of their own reality distortion fields and be what they should be.

Regarding religion, let’s remember that ordained priests, ministers, rabbis or imams wearing ornate vestments designed to confer holiness, are sometimes not that holy at all.

For universities, let’s not be overawed by granite buildings, stately campuses, imperious titles, gowns, tams, stoles, banners, multiple degrees, Latin phrases, tweed fabric and alumni hymns. Let’s remember that sometimes the smart are not that smart, or principled, at all.

As for our legal system, let’s not presume justice or integrity because officers are wearing uniforms festooned with oversized badges, insignias, stripes and goofy hats that easily upstage a strutting peacock. Nor should we be impressed with police jargon designed to obfuscate and confuse, as in “we attempted to ascertain the alleged location of the known assailant at this time but we are not at liberty to comment because we have completely forgotten how to communicate in a normal way with the people we serve.” Plus, as camera phones are proving, there’s always the outside chance a cop will shoot you.

There is commonality in these films. Each powerful culture wants us to believe that they can and should police themselves–all without a self-serving bias.

Yeah. Right. This is exactly how we get headlines like ‘Police Inquiry Clears Police Officer” or “Professors Vote to Protect Tenure.” As if there was a chance they wouldn’t.

Lest these films lead to despair and mistrust, note they also feature tremendously inspiring characters. Dogged, ethical journalists. Brave, proud young women. Lawyers with true wisdom and integrity. Average folks who rise as heroes by the simple act of remaining true to timeless values.

So on dark days filled with betrayal and abuse, take hope from the victims and their courage. Because when truth trumps hypocrisy the sun never shines brighter.

It’s enough to make you believe in spring.

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