For the second straight year, in line with the increased goals in their original film release schedule, Netflix invaded the Sundance Film Festival and began releasing their acquisitions almost immediately thereafter. The first to end up on the streaming service this year is a likely and comfortable one: Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman's documentary profile Seeing Allred.
Profile docs have become a particular niche on Netflix and, honestly, one of the best pieces of evidence for those who champion the way Netflix has changed the way we watch films. It has offered a home for hundreds of films that wouldn't have an easy space or platform otherwise. Sure, there is HBO and PBS and CNN and a few other channels that will showcase a special interest documentary from time to time, but none of them have the reach of Netflix.
As for Seeing Allred, Netflix is a good match for a few reasons. Though the film is a study in the entire life and career of its subject, Gloria Allred, it tries very hard to be a film of the now. Given Allred's career achievements, yeah, that makes sense. But it also goes heavy, especially near the end of the film, to tie her as a hero of the post-Trump election movements -- there is even a moment where Allred is surrounded by people chanting her name. I'm not saying this is disingenuous [I mean, this happened in a natural course] but it is definitely convenient to give the film an extra push that is easy for Netflix to market.
What’s it about: Gloria Allred is the highest profile civil rights attorney taking on women's’ rights cases. From humble beginnings and a tragic marriage, Allred realized civil rights were worth fighting for while hearing others’ stories in college. And after her own horrific personal life experiences, working to protect women from abuse, sexual assault, and other injustices became not just her work but her passionate drive. Seeing Allred jumps through many of her most important cases, most notably the Bill Cosby controversy which is chronicled during the filming.
Through a blitzing opening montage, showing the multitude of television appearances and high profile figures addressing Gloria Allred, Seeing Allred quickly establishes how it is interested in presenting Allred. She’s the hero willing to stand in front of the cameras and shout down anyone in her way, misogyny be damned! What’s more, she doesn’t care that this is her persona, that people don’t like her -- as Greta Van Susteren says, Allred clearly isn’t concerned with popularity contests because she’s already lost on those grounds.
As for the particular topics that the film washes over, it rarely engages in any of them particularly well. Especially the heart of the documentary, the Cosby lawsuits, isn't ever dissected or discussed. We see Allred standing with the accusers and footage from other news programs but no real new thought. Once it gets to that point, the film seems ready to move on to another big issue -- this is most egregiously done with the tacked on conclusion involving Trump and the election. The last 30 or so minutes with Allred's newest political and social issue to tackle should be a film all its own.
One of the more interesting things that the film accomplishes is showing how the public persona of Gloria Allred is unintentionally tied up in the issues that she champions. One statement is heard over and over again throughout the film from a widely diverse set of voices: the simple fact that Allred is involved with the women coming out to talk about their abuse, there must be something else going on -- either these women are plain lying or there is are political aims in hard. Overall, it isn't exactly subtle, because they really hammer in how others feel about her, but it doesn't directly state how this works within the film's themes.
There seem to be two major aims for the film: to personalize Gloria Allred and showcase how her persona and work have helped shaped how our society thinks about women’s rights issues. The second is absolutely met, if a bit scattershot -- it is a great showcase for a very important woman and the very important work she has done. To the first aim, it is a little more complicated. The interview with Allred doesn’t reveal much other than the facts of her life -- for better or worse, she presents herself as the straightforward personality we see on television. If the doc wants to try to get us to understand Allred in some different, deeper way, it will only solidify your previous opinions of her, whatever they may be.