For those who never had occasion to read Molly Ivins’ news columns, enjoy her sage quips, or see her on David Letterman go at former president George W. Bush or the conservative Republicans, you can still meet this national treasure in Janice Engel’s documentary Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, co-written by Monique Zavistovski.
This festival favorite had its world premiere at SXSW 2019. The documentary heartily and humorously chronicles Ivins’ career with wisdom. Engels uses the funniest of Ivins’ archived video clips and bolsters these with family photos, then folds in video statements by those who knew her work and/or were friends and colleagues.
Engel cobbles together the Ivins material with prodigious skill and edits with precision, creating sequences on specific subjects. What results is a delightful, often hysterical portrait of the inimitable woman journalist and Texan. Ivins was a raconteur, and that rarest of clever cultural pundits who has a profound understanding of the country, its civil liberties, and the social groups who work non-stop to wreck them. She was a newspaper columnist, author, political commentator, and especially a humorist, all of which Engel nails with supporting video commentary from Rachel Maddow, Cecil Richards, Dan Rather, Jim Hightower, Paul Krugman, and others. We learn how Ivins’ story, writings, and influence made journalistic history.
Ivins contained a contradiction – she was a kind of diva, but an authentic reporter. She upheld the vitality of a free press and our democratic principles without fear and often in the face of death threats. She fought using the firepower of brilliant wit and sardonic humor. Engel’s documentary is a clear-eyed encomium about the iconic female journalist of her time, who took on the Texas legislature and corporate cronyism and fought “Good Ole Boy” corruption with a smile on her face at the clink of a glass of whatever alcoholic beverage she was drinking.
Raising the specter of Texas as a petri dish for our nation’s inclination toward anti-democratic fascism, Ivins speared the egregious examples with her one-of-a-kind humor, similar to the crackling sass of acerbic-tongued essayist and social/political critic Gore Vidal. However, as a woman, she faced male skepticism and misogyny, which forced her to outshine and best her male competitors. She did so with savvy aplomb, sharp acumen, dry delivery, and high social IQ. Furthermore, Engel establishes that Ivins could out-drink and out-tongue-lash any male who attempted to take her on; afterwards, she would help them off the floor and become buddies with them. Ivins rarely if ever massaged the male ego to gain favor.
As Ivins grew in experience, she began to write for some of the nation’s finest newspapers. At one point her column was syndicated nationally in 400 papers. Each time she commented live or in print, her acute criticism of the “powers that be,” whomever they were, was a clarion call for the rest of the country. Above all, she showed others that they must stand against the cacophony of misinformation and alternative fantasy news. To her thinking, such noise was a tool to destroy the Bill of Rights regardless of what party the muddy rhetoric came from.
Molly Ivins presciently wrote about the growing power grab by conservatives (e.g. Gingrich, Rove, Limbaugh, Fox News) to control the political and social dialogue. Sadly, she died on the eve of the Obama administration. Many agree she would have been a formidable opponent in the current “news” cycle which dominated by a war against the truth fomented by President Trump and his cohort of news corruptibles.
The greatness of Engel’s LOL chronicle is that she allows Ivins to speak for herself and includes many of Ivins’ priceless quotes: “I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.” And more seriously, on the continued use of torture by the CIA, etc.: “There’s been a lot of experience with torture in history. It doesn’t work.”
When the film concludes, we cannot help but question whether there any brave journalist able to stand in the gap for us as Ivins did and face off against Trump, or are there only comedians? Thus far, the answer is no. But Engel has created this documentary and titled it based on an Ivins quote to encourage us. “Raise hell big time. I want ya’ll to get out there and raise hell about damned near everything. My word, there’s a world out there that needs fixing. Get out there and get after it.”
Viewing the documentary you will get better acquainted with Molly Ivins, the six-foot-tall, hard-drinking, wisecracking, strong-willed friend of Texas Governor Ann Richards. You’ll wish you had known her personally. This must-see documentary about her life uplifts, informs, encourages, and resonates for us today. That is reason enough to see this excellent film.