Film Review: ‘Seeing Allred’

The time is right for a documentary about media-savvy attorney Gloria Allred, whose fight for women’s rights helped #MeToo find its voice.

Most lawyers are content to fight their battles far from the public eye. Gloria Allred isn’t like most lawyers.

As the country’s highest profile women’s rights attorney, Allred understands that the court of public opinion can sometimes find justice that even the nation’s top courts cannot, and so, she has learned to generate media attention, organize press conferences, and even stage demonstrations for the benefit of cameras. That tactic has earned her many enemies over the years (one clip in Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain’s “Seeing Allred” shows Jimmy Kimmel saying she “seems to be in league with the devil,” without explaining why), but it also makes her uniquely suited to a documentary — one that can bring a megaphone to her causes, while offering a more intimate, personal side of her story.

Available exclusively on Netflix three weeks after its splashy Sundance debut, “Seeing Allred” differs profoundly from nearly every other time Americans have seen Allred over the years — whether it’s suing Sav-On for discrimination in the toy aisle or assembling dozens of women who’ve accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Here, she doesn’t need to elbow her way through the clutter of a crowded, largely male-dominated media landscape in order to be heard. If you’re watching this exceptionally timely documentary (an ideal companion to the #MeToo movement, positioned almost like a feature-length commercial for her practice), that means you’ve proactively elected to give Allred your attention, which in turn allows for a degree of nuance and humanity that TV news coverage doesn’t typically afford.

For instance, who knew that the 76-year-old dynamo switched to law relatively late, only after scraping by as an inner-city teacher — one of many trials that clearly forged her character as a champion of the underdog? Though she’s initially, and understandably, reluctant to share details about both her failed marriages (she got pregnant at 19 with daughter, and future litigator, Lisa Bloom) and a trip to Mexico in which she was raped at gunpoint, by selectively opening up about these details, Allred humanizes how she has been personally affected by the same kind of behavior she now crusades against — which is important, considering that said interview was recorded in a posh beachfront house in Malibu, Calif.

Taking on powerful adversaries clearly has its perks, but if Allred was merely in it for the money (she estimates she has earned her clients a quarter of a billion dollars, much of it through settlements), she would have cashed out long ago. Instead, her legal career continues full-throttle well past typical retirement age because she believes in what she does, fighting not only for women, but also for gay marriage and transgender rights. (In 2012, she took on Donald Trump for discriminating against a Miss Universe contestant who had been born a man but whose Canadian passport listed her as a woman — and won.)

The documentary doesn’t belabor the point — it doesn’t have to, for it’s plain as day — that society is harsher toward a woman who conducts herself as Allred does than it would be to a man who plays by the exact same rules, all of which goes a long way to underscore her character: Never one to shy away from a fight, Allred is the front line of defense in what she describes as the “war on women” — not to be confused with the “battle of the sexes,” since men can be some of the most important advocates in the fight for women’s rights. As Allred likes to say, “Men of quality are not threatened by women of equality.”

Even so, it’s astonishing to see how Allred has been portrayed by the media over the decades, and though the documentary doesn’t give her detractors the satisfaction of criticizing her for long, an energetic opening montage features unflattering clips from everything from “The Simpsons” to “South Park” (set to Eurythmics’ “Sisters Are Doin’ for Themselves,” since the filmmakers are clearly saving Laura Branigan’s anthemic “Gloria” for the finale). And yet, as an appearance on “Dinah!” more than 40 years ago demonstrates, Allred has taken every opportunity to publicly push back against an unfair patriarchal system: “I think we have a uterus and a brain and they both work!”

Over the years, that has included holding a press conference holding California governor Jerry Brown to task for not honoring his promise to increase the percentage of female judges in the state; seeking justice on behalf of Rita Milla, who claims to have been molested by seven Catholic priests; and representing the family of Nicole Brown Simpson in the highly publicized 1995 OJ murder trial. During the period in which the co-directors were actively profiling Allred, they appear at numerous press conferences (most notably those in the ever-growing case against Cosby), a landmark hearing in California’s “Justice for Victims Act” (which lifted the statute of limitations in rape cases), and various stops along the campaign trail for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid (including an eloquent impromptu statement made during the Women’s March on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial).

Allred may be the documentary’s focus, but the film puts its subject in perspective by incorporating the testimony of past and present clients, friends and admirers, and even fellow Gloria (and feminist pioneer) Steinem. Although Allred’s daughter Lisa Bloom also features prominently — initially, as a proud extension of her mother’s legacy, representing those who accused disgraced Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly via her own general practice — the doc doesn’t adequately grapple with the paradox that Allred’s daughter defended Harvey Weinstein when sexual harassment claims against him exploded last October.

What becomes clear by the end of 90 minutes is the fact this story is much bigger than Allred, gaining broader perspective in recent months as scandals about discrimination and abuse in politics and entertainment have come to light. As the cases against Cosby, Trump, O’Reilly, Weinstein, etc. reveal, the courts don’t appear to be equipped to correct a gender-biased system, whereas Allred has pioneered a new way of fighting injustice. And as #MeToo and #TimesUp remind, it’s not always about winning. Sometimes the mere fact of being heard is enough: “Speaking out for women in and of itself is an empowering experience,” says Allred, who has done so much simply by challenging who controls the narrative.