“Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the rape was first reported in a local newspaper, there was an attempt on the part of much of the community to deny the crime by simply waving it away. It was seen as the stars of the local football team, known as the Big Red, getting a little too wild in a boys-will-be-boys way. The coach didn’t even suspend his players for drinking (a rule he was generally strict about), because he didn’t want to get them in trouble.
But there are times you need an instigator to stir up a hornets’ nest, and one of the figures who drives “Roll Red Roll” is Alexandria Goddard, a crime blogger based in Columbus — though she was originally from Steubenville and knew what a parochial, sweeping-stuff-under-the-rug community it was — who took it upon herself to investigate the rape. Goddard, a smoker with true-crime anthologies dotting her living room, has the punk-rock charisma of a spiky forthright citizen journalist; she’s the sort of “character” who lends spark and drive to a documentary. Yet beyond her muckraking personality, there’s a hugely significant aspect to her detective work. She investigated the rape by combing through thousands of social-media messages — Facebook and Instagram posts, as well as texts, that added up to a minute-by-minute timeline account of the night in question, a kind of unofficial surveillance camera.
Goddard sorted through the messages, reconstructing the evening like a one-woman FBI, and that’s enough to make you wonder: Would a typical police force — anywhere — be as likely to do the same thing? Would the law confront a violent crime by treating the slapdash LOL messages of teenage boys as the ultimate codex?
Those messages, it turns out, tell two stories. Nancy Schwartzman, the director of “Roll Red Roll,” constructs a compelling true-crime drama, built around videotaped police interviews with the young witnesses conducted by the lead detective in the case, J. P. Rigaud (who’s like a Chiwetel Ejiofor character). The circumstantial evidence he gathers leads to the arrest of two 16-year-old football stars, Trent Mayes and Ma’lik Richmond, who were ultimately accused — and found guilty — of the rape of a minor. Testimony, and one shocking photograph of the underage victim’s listless body being carried through a house, indicates that she was incapacitated from drinking (or even entirely unconscious). From there, witnesses to the crime, including several boys who were in the room, testify to the ways that she had been assaulted.
But the social-media messages didn’t just incriminate the perpetrators. Apart from the issue of who was guilty, the messages reflected a more generalized tone of jeering, leering you-go-bro! misogyny — what has come to be thought of as “rape culture.” Rape culture is the real subject of “Roll Red Roll,” and it’s a subject of devastating importance, because if what we’re speaking of are crimes of inhumanity, and you think, “What could be worse than that?,” a clear answer is: a cultivated sociopathic atmosphere, shared by legions of “normal” young men, that says that rape is something they don’t reject — it’s something that, in secret, they accept and even encourage. They know it’s against the law, but in their hidden hearts and minds it’s something they view as a primitive male form of “conquest” rather than as the hideous act of violence it is.
The social-media messages connected to the rape in Steubenville (“Like I always say, you don’t need much foreplay with a dead girl,” “Some crazy ass shit just went down bro,” “Whores are hilarious”) express a lack of empathy so complete it’s terrifying. And as much as we might want to characterize it as extreme, you can hear echoes in it of a more generalized and blinkered 21st-century American teenage misanthropy. An attitude that says, “I feel good, so why should I care about you?” An attitude that says that another person only exists outside of you, so compassion is a waste, and a girl (or boy) can therefore be treated as an image, an object, or something worse — a utensil.
“Roll Red Roll” follows the full trajectory of the case, culminating in the trial that attracted international attention. Activists swarmed to Steubenville, a number of them sporting V for Vendetta masks, as the case became more than an individual test of justice. It became a referendum on how sexual violence is treated by the larger society.
The phenomenon of rape culture has emerged, more than anywhere, from the frat house (and from spring break, that ritualized bacchanal for kids who aren’t necessarily in frats), and it has been growing there — metastasizing — for decades. “Roll Red Roll” captures, with potent power, how the “If it feels good, wreck it” ethos of the beer-pong drink-till-you-submit forced “hookup” is finding more and more of a home among high schoolers. It’s not as if these things never went on there before, of course. But the attitude of male entitlement that surrounds toxic sexual coercion — and, in some cases, force — starts younger than it once did. It is becoming, more and more, an attitude that teenagers embrace. And though it’s obscene to think of even one person being victimized by it, what “Roll Red Roll” reveals is that these boys also need to be saved from themselves.