For fans of the late legendary journalist Molly Ivins, one of the many things to lament about her passing is that she didn’t live to see the Trump presidency.
The Lone Star State native would have carved up Trump like a Texas T-bone, in the opinion of one expert in all things Ivins.
“She’d be dining out on him for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” asserts Janice Engel, director of the documentary Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. “Oh my god, it would be a feast!”
In a career of more than 30 years as a reporter and columnist, Ivins displayed a particular gift for skewering politicians, especially those from her home state. She wrote of one House Republican from Texas, “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” And it was she who dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub,” warning her readers about what kind of president he would make.
“She really wanted to shine a light on what Bush did as governor [of Texas], and she very bravely did so,” Engel tells Deadline. “She said Texas was the national laboratory for bad government.”
The documentary, now in contention for awards consideration, traces the unusual route Ivins took to her left-wing worldview. She grew up in privilege in a tony Houston enclave, the daughter of a conservative and dictatorial oil and gas executive whom she called “the general.” She attended a segregated high school in the early 1960s, but didn’t buy the prevailing narrative in the South that African-Americans were inferior to whites.
Raise Hell shows Ivins dismissed the injunction that she use “whites only” drinking fountains instead of ones reserved for blacks, because—as she was told—the black ones were “dirtier.” In Ivins’ experience, it was the white fountains that were grubby and gum-clogged, not the tidier “blacks only” ones.
Engel describes the lesson Ivins drew from that observation: “When you grow up in the South and you grow up in segregation you sooner or later realize that people are lying to you, including your parents…She started to question [things] at a really young age.”
Ivins rebelled against her father and his ideology, cultivating a distaste for authority. Journalism squared with her impulse to right wrongs and she landed her first newspaper job at the Minneapolis Tribune after earning a Master’s from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. In her 20s she moved to Austin to become co-editor of The Texas Observer, where she trained a withering eye on the political class while covering the state legislature.
“She could be acerbic and her satire was just so sharp… [Her] themes are speaking truth to power and giving voice to those that don’t have one,” Engel notes, adding about herself, “I can’t bear unfairness and hierarchies. I’ve always bucked that stuff and I found in Molly a heroine who does the same thing.”
Later in her career, Ivins went to work for The New York Times where she wrote a famous obituary of Elvis Presley and covered the King’s funeral at Graceland (her piece made note of the singer’s “plump corpse”). But her colorful writing didn’t suit the Times; the final straw came when she covered a chicken killing festival in New Mexico, describing it as a “gang pluck.”
Ivins would find her true calling as a columnist, based initially at the Dallas Times Herald and then the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her fame grew as her column became syndicated, reaching 400 papers at one point. She made memorable television appearances displaying her sharp wit, some of them to promote her books, including Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?
Despite the director’s obvious affection for her subject, Raise Hell doesn’t amount to an unqualified Valentine to Ivins. Engel delves into the writer’s long struggle with alcoholism.
“I didn’t want to do a hagiography and it’s clearly not that,” Engel insists. “We needed to show Molly warts and all. She was a three-dimensional person.”
Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, has earned more than $600,000 in nine weeks of theatrical release. The film eventually will migrate to Hulu’s streaming platform, Engel says.
Ivins fought a long battle with breast cancer, succumbing to the disease in 2007 at the age of 62. She spoke openly about her illness and managed toward the end of her life to achieve the goal of becoming sober. A portrait emerges in Raise Hell of a complex woman—sensitive and brash, bookish yet sometimes bawdy. Her politics were of the left, but she could express sympathy for President Bush facing the monumental challenge of 9/11 within a year of taking office. And she could be very tough on Democrats, especially centrists; she once blasted President Clinton as “weaker than bus-station chili.”
Ivins amused with her delightful bons mots. But there’s a serious thrust to her work that Engel hopes viewers won’t miss—Ivins was a staunch supporter of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. She was no enemy of the people (to borrow President Trump’s description of the press), but completely on their side.
“This film is there to make you laugh, it’s there for you to know who Molly Ivins is because she should be known. But it’s also her reminder—it’s a call to action. It’s ‘We the people,’ people,” Engel comments. “She said, ‘We are the deciders. We’re the ones that run the country. Those people up in your state capitals, those people up in Washington, they’re just the people we’ve hired to drive the bus for a while.’ So it’s up to us. You have to take civic responsibility.”