Believe it or not, there was a time when our politics didn't splinter us into humorless cliques, as jokes about "us versus them" weren't an affront to the human ego. Writers like the political firebrand Molly Ivins could call a state representative someone who "runs on all fours and has the brains of an adolescent piss ant" and the next time the representative saw her, "that sumbitch would spread out his arms and say: Baby, you put my name in your paper," she said in a C-SPAN interview in 1997.
Director Janice Engel, whose documentary on Ivins is called Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, didn't have the pleasure of growing up reading Ivins' Texas-bred wit in her newspaper columns and features. She discovered her work in 2012, five years after her death.
"I didn't know much about her other than when I saw her on Letterman and how she dubbed George W. Bush as 'Little Shrub,' which I thought was a little funny," Engel says.
Engel's production partner James Eagen urged her to see the one-woman show about Ivins called Red Hot Patriot: The Life and Wit of Molly Ivins starring Kathleen Turner as the Texas hellraiser who was born in California and raised in an affluent Houston suburb and is best remembered for her reporting and columns with The Texas Observer and the Dallas Times Herald. Ever since then, she knew she wanted to make a film about her.
"(Eagen) wanted to make a film with me, and we would always talk about it and one day, he called up in the spring of 2012 and said I needed to see this play," Engel says. "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Don't ask, just go.' I laughed my ass off. I Googled Molly until 2 or 3 in the morning watching C-SPAN clips."
Engel's film opens on Friday, Aug. 30, and chronicles Ivins' wit and work as a reporter and writer, driven by her love/hate for politics and penchant to inject her activism into her words, which entertained and inspired her readers to strive for change.
"She's Samantha Bee with Trevor Noah and John Oliver sprinkled with a little Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on top," Engel says. "Cross that with Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes and you have one Molly Ivins."
The timing for a documentary about Ivins couldn't be more perfect or well-timed and not just because of our current political climate. Engel says her film got into the Sundance Film Festival just after the midterm elections with a rough cut, when it would've otherwise gotten buried under the constant stream of news about the candidates and Trump's gaffe of the week.
"The fact that it's coming out right now just as we're coming into the fall season before an election, it's a call to action," Engel says. "Molly's voice is relevant even more so today. So much of what she wrote 15, 20 and 30 years ago is happening right now. Molly said there was no left to right issue. It's top to bottom. It's who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing."
The effective power of Ivins' words came from her one-liners and wit. Engel says she knew it was the most effective way to reach someone, especially if they disagree with you.
"Molly knew that humor was the door key to the brain," Engel says. "When people are funny, we have to think about the joke to get it and when they laugh, endorphins get released and then there's room to have a conversation."
Ivins was more than just a funny writer. She wanted to do more than just make her readers laugh.
"Molly was the one person do it all," Engel says. "She was a serious, deeply thoughtful, caring person who spoke truth to power and give voice to those who didn't have one. She was a serious political wonk who saw the inequities in the system."
Engel says she also had a great eye for the direction that politics could take the country, even in today's weird times when America is ruled by a consistently broke, tax-dodging reality-show star with the temperament of a petulant, name-calling kid.
"I think she'd say the direction we were going and a bit asleep at the wheel through the Obama years," she says, "I think she'd be somewhat horrified, but it wouldn't stop what she'd do but she'd be tweeting and having him for breakfast, lunch and dinner and she would get to him because he has such a thin skin."
Ivins' thoughts and words didn't just focus on zinging the powerful. Engel says Ivins wanted to inspire people to take action and create the change they wish they could see.
"Molly reached a lot of people in the States but her big thing would be getting people to the polls because 65% didn't vote and that's why we're in the situation we're in," Engel says. "She was good at getting people to go beyond their apathy."
The next Molly Ivins type of figure to come along won't just be one person. Engel says they are all around us.
"All those young people in the end (of the film) saying 'Vote them out, vote them out, November is coming,' those people are on the front lines taking their civil responsibility to task," Engel says. "They're getting out on the streets banging on pots and pans and taking back our democracy from corporate interests."
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