I spent much of my time watching this documentary film Raise Hell wondering how the hell I got this far not having any idea who apparently legendary journalist Molly Ivins was. But then I figured it out: I was near and into my forties before I even started paying much attention to national figures of her sort, much less ones from and so intrinsically tied to places like Texas. Sure, I spent the Bush years actively loathing him and his administration, but not only did I not have any idea who he was when he was governor of Texas (which was during my early twenties, blissfully ignorant of local politics across the nation), but I certainly had no working knowledge of any journalists making a name for themselves covering him.
I merely turned 30 in 2006; Molly Ivins died after a seven-year battle with breast cancer in early 2007, at the age of 62. Thirteen years later, this film by Janice Engel (director and co-writer) so effectively illustrates Ivins’s trailblazing legacy, stretching all the way from the seventies to the 2000s, it makes you wish you could have known her. Or in my case, at least have known of her. Ivins was the best kind of liberal: the kind that blossomed out of a deeply conservative region, only to stay there and challenge establishment politics. Also she was hilarious.
Something Ivins is shown saying several times in the mass of archival footage in this film: there is actually no such thing as “journalistic objectivity,” so why put on airs that it exists? This notion really hit me where I live, even just as an amateur movie reviewer. I don’t particularly think of myself as a journalist, and Raise Hell has no part of it that even makes reference to the entertainment industry. Still it brought to mind the great Roger Ebert, whose movie reviews I grew to love, whose reviews I still regularly look up, and whose opinions of current movies I often wish I could have known. I used to struggle to present “objective” observations (a preposterous notion for the likes of reviews which are by definition opinions), painstakingly avoiding “I statements” — until I noticed Roger Ebert using “I” a lot in his reviews. I finally decided, fuck it, I’m just going to write out what I think, how I feel most comfortable doing it. It’s safe to say now his writing influenced me far more than that of any other writer.
I get the feeling Molly Ivins’s writing would have had a similar impact, had I ever known about it and spent any time reading it. I may yet seek out some of her books, although their of-the-moment subject matter is bound to be dated. To be fair, she hit her stride in the eighties and nineties, when I was but a child and a teenager, at a time when only the most ambitious of young people were paying attention to national, let alone regional affairs. Still, Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins left a sense that I really missed out on something.
Besides that, Engel gets deeper into Ivins’s story than just her career and professional legacy, which certainly still deserves examination. Unlike the otherwise wonderful documentary about Linda Ronstadt I saw the other day, which keeps its focus almost entirely on her career, Raise Hell gets at least a little personal: her fraught relationship growing up with her far-right dad; her surprising shyness in the face of increasing national fame; her dual fights with cancer and with alcoholism.
Most importantly, Ivins was funny, and she used her humor as a clever, subversive weapon, first skewering the Texas State Legislature and later politicians nationwide — Republican and Democrat alike. Clearly beloved by other journalists, we are treated to fairly fawning interviews with the likes of Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, among others. Raise Hell is also replete with fantastic archival footage of interviews with Ivans and of speeches she gave to various audiences over the years, some of them with very degraded video quality but all of them packed with often hysterical witticisms. It’s not often a biographical documentary makes you laugh this much.
I do also love it when presented with an example of someone who defies stereotypes, and that certainly includes a Southern intellectual who wears her East Texas accent proudly. Ivins spent a few years in other areas of the country, including an education in Massachusetts at Smith College, where people heard her speak and immediately assumed she was not quite as smart as everyone around her. Anyone underestimating this woman did so at their peril, however, and it was not long before her intellect proved itself within moments of her opening her mouth — or running her fingers along a keyboard. Suffice it to say, Molly Ivins was a delight ended far too soon, as is this movie.