Imagine you’re 21 years old and just secured your dream job working for one of the best film studios in Hollywood. You get to meet all the A-list actors and work with Academy Award-winning producers and creatives.
The person responsible for making this movie-making machine run takes a liking to you. This titan, a man you idolize and who has a career that you hope to one day emulate, tells you how talented you are. He assures you that you can go far in this industry. He asks to meet with you. His assistant sets up a meeting for a few days later. The evening before the meeting you stay up all night tirelessly preparing. What to wear? What to say? How to best present yourself?
The meeting finally arrives, but it quickly takes a turn for the worse. Instead of asking you about your career aspirations, he asks you for a massage. Then he expects you to watch him take a shower. Then he promises that your career will take off if you acquiesce to his advances—and that your career will end right here, right now, if you don’t.
This is the story told by the many victims of film producer Harvey Weinstein, survivors who were silenced for decades before a New York Times story, and now feature-length narrative film, finally gave them voice.
In October 2017, journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor wrote a scathing article detailing years of sexual abuse that countless women had endured at the hands of Weinstein. They followed up in 2019 with the book She Said. Now their story has been adapted into a film directed by Maria Schrader, who won an Emmy for last year’s beautifully devastating limited series Unorthodox, and written by Independent Spirit Award Nominee Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
It’s all at once a tribute to the survivors, a rebuke of the sophisticated system that allowed this abuse to persist for over three decades, and an ode to journalism.
The film doesn’t just tell the stories of the victims; it also gives us a front row seat into what Twohey and Kantor endured while investigating Weinstein. Although they had the full support of their editors, this wasn’t an easy story to break, and the film does a great job showcasing that. We see the calls they had to make, the emotional interviews they conducted, the brick walls they hit, the countless emails they had to sift through, and the toll the investigation took on them and their families.
“This film is about what we did not know. About how the story came about, and who was behind it,” Schrader told me in an advance interview last week.
No screen time is devoted to sexual violence. Instead, the powerful stories from the survivors vividly paint the disturbing encounters. It’s an effective choice. There’s a great moment where we hear actual audio of Weinstein attempting to coerce a woman to go into his hotel room, while onscreen is simply a montage of empty hotel hallways.
“It was an essential part of the story to give the people who had this terrible experience ownership of their own story,” Schrader said. She went on to tell me that she wasn’t interested in making the women “objects of assault yet again.”
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think about the many recent cases of sexual misconduct that have been brought to the forefront. R. Kelly. Bill Cosby. Bill O ‘Reilly. Louis CK. So many powerful figures in entertainment, sports, business, and more have victimized individuals that trusted them.
According to a joint #MeToo survey conducted by the University of California San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, RALIANCE and the Promundo Institute, 81% of women experience sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, and only 30% of those harassed report the harassment. Etactics reports that 95% of those reported cases lead to no reprimand. Instead, the women who report harassment are met with animosity and retaliation. Some are even forced out of their jobs. No wonder most women don’t report the violence or harassment they experience. History tells them that their voices will be stolen twice, which makes the pain and terror they feel even that more horrendous.
Schrader and Lenkiewicz do not just indict Weinstein, but they put a microscope on all the players: Assistants who looked the other way, attorneys who intimidated women into exile, accountants who brokered hush settlements. At least eight women received payouts, forced to seal the accounts of their victimization into a file that no one was ever supposed to see. Others, so traumatized by what they experienced, did more than remain silent; they left the film industry altogether.
The film refuses to let us even look at Weinstein (he’s only shown from the back) but lets the faces of the corrupted system and the women who suffered because that system was more concerned with protecting its own interests, take center stage. As one woman states in the film: “This is bigger than Weinstein. This is about the system protecting abusers.”
That sentiment echoes loudly throughout the film. The viewer can only hope it also echoes in the hallways, offices, and boardrooms of almost every industry. Hopefully stories like these will not only encourage women to report, but will make the men that victimize them think twice. It’s time out for abusers to be able to act with impunity. It’s time for justice.
Ya’Ke Smith is an associate professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also an award-winning TV and film director and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He wrote this for The Dallas-Morning News.