In the process of growing up, we’re reminded over and over again that life isn’t fair. It’s not an untrue admonishment; after all, sometimes your brother will get ice cream and you won’t, or you have to miss out on trick-or-treating because you have strep throat. It’s a little life lesson that works, insofar as teaching kids that life won’t always work out the way that you expect, and that balance can’t always be maintained.
But it falls far short in terms of teaching children just how unfair life will be. After all, while teaching children that life isn’t always fair, we’re also standing them in front of an American flag and encouraging them to recite a pledge of allegiance to the country, tiny hype men for a nation promising liberty and justice for all.
We shouldn’t stop at teaching kids that life isn’t always fair. We should teach them that justice isn’t either.
It’s something I think about a lot as I watch a new generation of TV documentaries, in which filmmakers eschew the idea of criminal justice in exchange for cultural justice. Even if that’s not what the storytellers are aiming to do, it becomes a natural consequence when information long scattered to the winds is collected and presented in a comprehensible fashion.
Two such projects have made headlines in recent weeks for doing just that. On FX, “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears,” a wider audience was exposed to the subtle tragedy of Spears’ life as the teen pop star was exploited and shamed by the media and has spent the last 13 years of her life under the conservatorship of her father, despite being competent enough to release several hit albums, as well as a multi-year Las Vegas concert residency.
On HBO, “Allen v. Farrow” has received much critical acclaim ahead of its debut on February 21. The four-part docuseries from Academy Award nominees Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering is an in-depth look at the sexual assault accusations made by Dylan Farrow against her father Woody Allen, when Farrow was just seven years old. What followed was a war of words and tabloid headlines as Allen chose to fight his battles on the front pages of newspapers, as ex-girlfriend and mother of Dylan, Mia Farrow, attempted to find justice for her daughter via the courts.
But what is justice in matters where the law falls short? Cases of sexual assault and abuse are often among the hardest to litigate successfully, as so many of the encounters come down to one party’s word against another’s, with no other witnesses to what happened.
You’ll hear plenty of people decry those that attempt to try cases in the court of public opinion, but what choice do victims have once the statute of limitations has passed? In a way, the recent surge of post-#MeToo documentary projects have become their own version of cultural justice, attempting to right the wrongs of the past by simple information dissemination.
Take Justin Timberlake, for example. Another former teen pop star who has had a successful career in music and beyond, made headlines early in his life while involved romantically with Spears. Timberlake gleefully reported details of his sexual encounters with Spears, while also playing the victim over their breakup, encouraging the media in their determined efforts to vilify his ex-girlfriend for allegedly breaking his heart.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident for Timberlake, who has been getting blowback for years over his Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson, during which his actions resulted in the exposure of Jackson’s breast on live TV to 140 million people. In the aftermath, Jackson’s career was upended, while Timberlake’s was largely unchanged. In the immediate reckoning of the 2004 event, Jackson was blackballed from the Grammy Awards where she had previously been invited to appear, while Timberlake was still allowed, not only to attend, but to perform at the event.
There are those who will tell you that judging Timberlake after the fact is evidence of “cancel culture” and an excuse to try limit people’s right to self-expression. But what if it’s not cancel culture? What if it’s merely consequences — albeit delayed — for actions that always deserved to be censured? (This week, Timberlake apologized to both Spears and Jackson in a note posted to social media.)
We live in an age where dissemination of facts is more important than ever. Kirby and Ziering combed through thousands of pages of police and legal documents regarding the Allen and Farrow case, collecting information long buried or inaccessible for general viewers and using them as insight into a conflict that years ago would have been exclusively decided in the headlines of the New York Post.
Documentary TV projects, from “Surviving R. Kelly” to “Leaving Neverland,” “Allen v. Farrow,” and “Framing Britney Spears” continue to offer information to audiences who might never otherwise have access. This is not a reckoning. It’s an opportunity. Justice can be done. It might just take a little time.