At one point in Nancy Schwartzman’s “Roll Red Roll,” Steubenville detective J.P. Rigaud can be heard outlining the complicated legal case that would be brought against two teens by a Jane Doe, accusing them of raping her, though having been inebriated, she only learned the sexual assault when a friend showed her a picture that had been passed around online. The accused weren’t confessing their guilt to the cops, yet through allusions made on their social media feeds and those of their friends on the high school football team Big Red, there was little doubt a crime had been committed. Still, even with a timeline clearly established by Facebook posts and text messages that sounded an awful lot like virtual confessions by those involved, it would be difficult to make a case that would hold up in the real world since physical evidence was hard to come by.
As much as a challenge as the prosecution would face in bringing the case to trial, you slowly being to realize in “Roll Red Roll” what Schwartzman was up against in doing justice to what happened in Steubenville, which became a flashpoint for awareness around the cultural conditioning of young men to think rape is acceptable, commonly referred to as “rape culture.” In a case that’s been so thoroughly digested by the national media and where no one but the authorities was likely ever going to talk to the filmmaker, including the Jane Doe, whose identity obviously needs to be protected, Schwartzman impresses with how she’s able to exploit what could’ve been a weakness into a great strength, allowing audiences to become acquainted with the central players where they are likely their most honest — in the virtual realm, where there’s a feeling that no one’s watching.
Alongside clips from interrogations that occurred during a more formal police investigation conducted by Rigaud in the immediate aftermath of the evening, Schwartzman follows the amateur sleuthing of Alexandria Goddard, a Steubenville-born true crime blogger who took the initiative to sift through Facebook and Twitter feeds of the football team’s roster from her desk in Columbus, to find a mountain of evidence hiding in plain sight. Her instinct to even look was born out of knowing the strong pigskin tradition in Steubenville has long let anyone who could make its variety squad act with impunity, and there’s a poetry to how Schwartzman and editors Erin Casper, Mitch Jacobson and Christopher White create layers of experience covering the same time, drawing a parallel immediately at the start of the film between the quiet streets of Steubenville and the audio from the night of the crime taken from a video passed around online, where someone can be heard cackling, “She’s so raped right now,” jokingly wondering if the girl in their midst is dead, and the correspondence between the physical world and online realm only becomes more sophisticated from there.
While Schwartzman’s interaction with the community appears to be limited, “Roll Red Roll” still does an extraordinary job of establishing a sense of place, both in terms of the specific cultural context for the complex public reaction that informs how the case proceeds in Steubenville and the larger issues of gender disparity that the case crystallizes that covers multiple generations. Some of the most telling comments in the film come from Vinnie Fristick, who played for Big Red four decades prior and wonders why Steubenville is getting singled out for scrutiny when such crimes likely happen everywhere, a question that is as provocative as it is horrifying in furthering the notion that if a horrific act become commonplace it should be accepted. It’s telling that Schwartzman never needs to punctuate how male bias is an inherent start for any conversation during the police investigation, whether it’s the crude language used on both ends of an interrogation that speaks volumes in how something’s said rather than what’s being said or how often people hold Jane Doe responsible for putting herself in a precarious situation rather than the young men whose defense essentially is that they were helpless against their own instincts.
Despite its clear capacity to infuriate, the even-tempered approach of “Roll Red Roll” manages to dynamically present the Steubenville case in such a way that both those familiar with it from national news and locals will find something new to consider and in seamlessly weaving together competing perspectives to give a clear picture of a situation in which there will never be complete agreement, the film finds where there are no easy answers, it can be just as powerful and takes as much courage to simply raise questions.