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“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” Film Review

I attended college for journalism in Denton, a Texan city described as “Little Austin” — a fairly liberal spot in a conservative state. And somehow, before watching “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins,” I’d never heard of Molly Ivins. How odd.

Ivins was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, author and columnist known for her silver-tongued, fiery critiques of political elites. To describe herself, she said “I’m a Texan. I drive a pickup truck. I drink beer. I hunt. I’m a liberal.” She railed against police brutality 40 years before the Ferguson riots, worked as the first female editor of the Texas Observer and satirized Texas representatives with a wickedly funny bent.

How were her columns not required reading?

Thankfully, director Janice Engel’s new documentary serves as a thorough primer into Ivins’s personal life and career. From her childhood years as the bookworm in a family of five to her career’s early years as the Minneapolis Tribune’s first female crime reporter and her rise to national prominence, skewering President George W. Bush’s administration, the movie paints a portrait of Molly Ivins as an ambitious lover of life and people, emboldened to strike at those who abuse power (and common sense). 

The documentary models itself after Ivins’s larger-than-life personality. Slide guitars, twanging banjos and booming jazz drums soar in the score. Ivins’s musings about rednecks and Good Ol’ Boys over sequences of honky-tonks and the Rio Grande are chicken-fried poetry, equal parts insightful and gut-busting. If you didn’t know any better, a Molly Ivins interview or speech sounds like stand-up comedy, and the movie wastes no time revealing how fiercely funny and intelligent she is.

However, that bombast can backfire. I can’t see a scenario in which it’s appropriate to pair a description of Ivins’s father’s suicide and his picture with a blaring sound effect of a gunshot. For as dark and self-deprecating as Ivins’s humor can be, I don’t think it fits.

Molly Ivins
Molly Ivins on the floor of the Texas Legislature | Photo credit: Alan Pogue/ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The documentary sometimes runs the risk of overemphasizing Ivins’s cult of personality. What dangers arise from reducing one’s nationally recognized political opinions to one-liners and zingers? If the result of Ivins’s work was to be another pissing contest between ideologically-opposed sides, what would separate her from any other prime-time pundit?

She raised hell. She challenged authority. More importantly, she challenged blind faith in authority. For Ivins, politics was not a pursuit for the passive, because what was being decided would not passively exist in the American home. She disagreed with the viewpoint of a political spectrum that ran left to right, instead opting for one that ran up and down. When the decisions made by the people up top affected how those lower on the totem pole fed their families, checked their health and lived without fear, passivity ensured that those on the bottom would suffer.

Molly Ivins
Molly Ivins at the New York Times | Photo credit: Molly Ivins Collection, Briscoe Archives/ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The movie shows young protesters at rallies for reproductive rights and gun control, and it’s here where Engel marks the importance of Ivins’s hell-raising mantra. In an interview with the Sundance Institute, Engel calls Ivins a “First Amendment warrior,” someone whose devotion to the proper pursuit of truth, and the free expression necessary to search for said truth, is “incredibly relevant” in times where the freedoms of speech and the press are threatened.

I’m reminded of President Donald Trump’s petulant spat with CNN reporter Jim Acosta. I remember how the White House then suspended Acosta’s security credentials, all because he dared to question the president’s racist remarks. 

But I also remember how many people complained. They slung heaps of ridicule, anger and embarrassment at authority, actively challenging and rebuking this abuse of power. 

With every joke, tweet and critique, the spirit of Molly Ivins lives on, and if people are smart and continue to introduce clueless journalism undergraduates to her through this documentary, I think it’ll do the next wave of First Amendment warriors a lot of good.

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Featured image credit: Alan Pogue/ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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