Know What I'm Saying?
Alex Libby, J Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, David Long, Tia Long, Kirk Smalley
US theatrical: 30 Mar 2012 (Limited release)
“We had heard he had his head shoved into a wall locker,” says David Long, looking mournful in a close-up shot that leaves half the frame to his left open. “Some kids had told him to go hang hisself, that he was worthless.” Here the scene cuts to home movie footage of David’s young son Tyler, the mobile frame barely keeping up with him as he trots across a living room, brimming with energy and flashing a bright smile directly at the camera. Cut back to dad, who sighs, “I think he got to the point where enough was enough.” A melancholy oboe pushes up into the soundtrack.
The sequence comes early in Bully, the much discussed documentary about kids’ brutalities to one another—and the paucity of adults’ interventions. Another clip shows and even younger Tyler at a kitchen table, smiling again as he tells his other he’s drawing a picture for daddy. “I still think he’s gonna come through that door, and I know he’s not,” David says, the camera extra-tight on his jiggling leg before it fast-pans up to his face, so fast that for a moment, the image loses focus. Yes, you see, David still feels devastated by his 17-year-old son’s suicide in Murray County, Georgia, 2009.
And that’s the problem with Bully. A call-to-action kind of documentary, modeled after the rousing but also reductive Waiting For Superman, it’s heartfelt and rightly outraged over its dire subject matter—and doesn’t trust you to sort out what’s at stake. Instead, it lectures by way of sentimental affect, pounding its tragic and infuriating points, ensuring that you attend to Tyler’s wholly embodied innocence and his dad’s jiggling leg, so that you feel rightly outraged too.
The film includes a series of stories, including that of 16-year-old Kelby Johnson, facing the consequences of being out in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Though Kelby’s dad means to be supportive and praises her efforts to “stand up” to the bullies, he notes that her coming out had effects on the rest of the family, whose neighbors began to treat them differently. His version of Kelby’s story doesn’t suggest he knows exactly what she goes through (she tried to commit suicide three times), but he’s acutely aware that her daily life is ridiculously hard, that she’s called names and assaulted, no matter how many friends she has and how much she believes in her own self-worth. He’s offered to move, but she told him, “If I leave, they win.”
They do eventually win something, when by film’s end the Johnsons look to be moving. But the lesson here is that Kelby talks to her dad, and he is mightily supportive. This is not the case for the film’s two other primary stories, concerning Alex Libby, a 12-year-old who is harassed and battered when he rides the bus to East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa, and 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson, an honors student and star basketball player who became so frustrated after years of abuse in rural Mississippi that she took her mother’s gun to school and wound up in a psychiatric facility, charged with 45 counts of felony. As Ja’Meya and her mother hug and worry, the camera presses ever closer, revealing tears and pores. That the child saw no other options illustrates that when kids suffer violence, they often turn to violence, and sometimes their parents provide examples of behavior, and even weapons.
Bully doesn’t offer details about how Ja’Meya’s situation might have been exacerbated because she’s black, or the race or class makeup of her neighborhood or school. It doesn’t indicate how her mother came to have a gun. This strategy—focusing so immediately on the bullying, and not on how it’s framed—underscores the the movie’s Big Point again, that bullying is an increasingly common pathology that affects all classes, areas, genders, and races, as well as a range of ages. This strategy leaves out how the pathology is also produced, in times and places. At the same time, the lack of details also indicates the film’s lack of attention to reasons and contexts for bullying. It may be widespread, but bullies and victims learn how to behave in the ways they do, they’re born into circumstances and shaped by experiences.
This need for detail is exemplified in Alex’s story, which takes up the bulk of the film. He’s a great kid, confused and open to the filmmakers, who tag along as he is repeatedly abused on the bus and in the schoolyard. At home with his seemingly attentive parents, Alex doesn’t tell them what happened, what you’ve just seen, and so the film helps to stoke your frustration for this kid whose words fail him. When at last the filmmakers decide to show the parents and the principal some very upsetting footage they’ve shot—all adults seem surprised. Here you might wonder about how adults perform for cameras in ways that kids do not, but when the principal tells the parents that she’s ridden on Alex’s bus and the kids are “as good as gold,” you understand completely why Alex’s mother looks so devastated.
The agony of this scene is compounded when Alex’s parents try to figure out what to do. Unable to extract information from their son, their own frustrations are palpable, the camera low on them as they stand in the laundry room. Their space is confined, their options are limited, and their son is traumatized beyond what they had imagined. The framing is dramatic, drawing enough attention to itself to remind you of the Libbys’ awareness of the camera that created that framing. As you understand how, even a little, much pain Alex has endured before the adults around him have come to and created their dramatic revelation, your own frustrations have to do with much more than the kids on the bus.
As much as the film wants to display these experiences, and to upset you with them, it’s less clear how its appeals might affect different viewers. Kids who are bullied and kids who bully might see themselves on screen, but that doesn’t mean they see quite how to respond. Parents and teachers will find it harder to see themselves, at least in part because their ignorance, their inability to see, is the crisis the film means to represent, if not diagnose.
Still, as an earnest complaint and collection of cautionary tales, Bully brings a built in urgency. Bullying—physical, verbal, and cyber—is on the rise in the United States and elsewhere, whether because more incidents are reported or otherwise made visible, or because more incidents occur. Suicides and school shootings have helped to publicize the phenomenon. And surely, kids inclined to bully have plenty of models for bad behavior, on television and in movies, by celebrities and politicians. Just as surely, the film suggests, something must be done to stop the process.
Just so, the film advertises itself as part of a larger campaign. “It’s time to take a stand,” Bully urges. And so it offers at least one set of organizing tools available on the slick Bully Project website, which offers information about what bullying looks like today and how parents, teachers, and students might respond to bullying, as well as a downloadable guide to the film (which asks you to register to get at it). It expands on ideas and images in the film, and recommends solutions.
Weinstein has mounted another sort of related campaign, challenging the MPAA’s R rating for the film. All the hubbub has made the documentary much more visible than it might have been, and even if, as more than one observer has remarked, Harvey Weinstein is “long considered one of the biggest bullies in the movie industry.”
The ratings controversy has resulted in the film’s release without a rating, and perhaps it will bring attention again to the preposterous measures (or lack of same) deployed by the MPAA board. But it has also drawn attention to a much broader problem, which is how adults and children understand themselves as such, how the process of “growing up” is not only always hard but also always shifting. What are the lines between adults’ and children’s responsibilities, to themselves and to each other? What do adults think they’re doing, for whom, as they redefine these lines? And what do adults imagine will result when they leave kids to their own devices—because adults are busy or angry or fearful, willfully or accidentally oblivious. Kids are people, like adults. If adults, including adults who make films about kids, can’t remember what it was like to be kids, every education will be starting from scratch.