'Seeing Allred': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A worshipful look at an icon.
1/21/2018

Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman's look at Gloria Allred's passionate advocacy may not help critics understand her better, but the outspoken lawyer probably doesn't care.

Utterly and passionately hagiographic, the documentary Seeing Allred presents 96 minutes of reasons to stand and cheer for celebrated feminist lawyer Gloria Allred.

That means, of course, that for ultra-conservative lovers of Netflix documentaries, it's doubtful that Seeing Allred is going to dramatically change any opinions about her.

For people with more tempered views on the notorious attorney, Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman's documentary leaves a lot of questions unasked and tiptoes around plenty of other relevant conversations, but in its presentation of a career-in-full, it advocates persuasively for this advocate.

Seeing Allred, premiering as part of the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance, feels like the film Allred would want a documentary about her to be.

"I think I'm very well understood by many people," she says before the film's title card appears. And what of those who go out of their way not to understand her? "I don't really care," she says, believably.

Sartain and Grossman's access to Allred began as the criminal accusations against Bill Cosby were starting to reach critical mass. It's a perfect storm case for both Allred supporters and detractors, because she orchestrated a steady stream of press conferences relating to charges that were outside of the statute of limitations — the sort of thing that has always led to sniveling criticisms of opportunism and self-aggrandizement. 

The directors' goal isn't to debunk those slurs or to get Allred herself to debunk them. At the most, we get a couple variations on, "If she were a man, nobody would look at these qualities as negatives."

When Allred says she doesn't care what people who don't like her think, either that was a mantra she continued in interviews or it scared the directors off. Or maybe it didn't interest the directors to know what she thinks about being lampooned by The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live or right-wing pundits. And they very much weren't interested in asking her to defend herself, which is entirely fair. It's left for one of the myriad admiring talking heads — even occasionally adversarial colleagues/pundits like Greta Van Susteren and Alan Dershowitz offer only respect here — to mention that for all of the perception of Allred working in a constantly publicized realm, most of her employment cases we hear nothing about. That's a point Allred could make or the directors could want to show, but they don't find it necessary.

The documentary loosely puts Allred's feminist awakening in a personal context, but that isn't really the way the subject wants to frame it. She's open but terse in discussing her own rape and subsequent illegal abortion, framing both in terms of the empathy she has for her clients. She's entirely unwilling to discuss the end of her second marriage. She's admiring, but not effusive in talking about daughter Lisa Bloom. Talking heads speak to Allred's kindness and compassion; she doesn't need to tell the camera that she's kind or compassionate. A friend who does Gloria Allred-drag speaks to her sense of humor and her ability to laugh at herself; she doesn't need to be funny or self-effacing for the camera (her amusement at frequent confusion with Sen. Barbara Boxer is one of the rare exceptions).

Where Allred is comfortable is tracing a professional awakening in which she was fast to recognize that in press conferences or just televised announcements, she was being given (or grabbing) a platform and a voice that wasn't being heard and that in being confrontational and steering into conflict, she was speaking the only language that the establishment was able to understand. It's one thing to wonder if she has devalued that platform with some of the ways she's used it, but it's impossible to dispute that when she's used the platform consistently on behalf of causes, she's gotten results. So when she's sitting behind a microphone next to Cosby accusers knowing that they can't take Cosby to court, she's in the business of giving voice, and if cynics ask, "Where's the money or publicity for her in this?," the documentary draws the line directly to the Justice for Victims Act and then into her support for accusers of Donald Trump. When you draw enough lines and point to enough voices that she's supported, you can actually believe Don Lemon when he says that without Allred he might not have his job, even if he's not making a direct connection. The tentacles of her decades of campaigning are very visible.

Because Allred isn't into talking about mistakes or losses, one of the documentary's most revelatory moments is the Hillary Clinton booster's growing horror as the directors film what was supposed to be a celebratory 2016 Election Night. It's unguarded and doesn't feel camera-ready. There isn't a follow-up interview where Allred theorizes on the election and what it meant. Instead, we just see her continue to amplify Trump accusers and take her place at the Women's March and other protests.

Seeing Allred makes Allred's work the only worthwhile manifestation of her character, and when she says that her only fear is not living long enough to do all the work she wants to do, that's the case the film has argued, too. It's not a case for Gloria Allred that's going to change any minds but, again, she probably really doesn't care.

 

Production company: Netflix
Directors: Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman
Producers: Sophie Sartain, Roberta Grossman, Marta Kauffman, Robbie Rowe Tollin, Hannah KS Canter
Executive producers: Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Nishimura
Editor: Chris Callister
Cinematographer: Alex Pollini
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

96 minutes