Molly Ivins Documentary Is Fun, But It Could Be Richer

Sep 20, 2019

In our skewed political calculus, the notorious and beloved columnist Molly Ivins gets classified as a wild liberal. She was a life-long supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union; she also wrote for The Texas Observer and The New York Times – with three years as the sole Times reporter in the Denver bureau. Her last writing job was with the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. Ivins was outspoken – to say the least – but she didn’t take stands on many specific political issues; over and over again she fought for fundamental fairness and decency – and against people who would lie and cheat, who valued ignorance over knowledge, and as a friend says in the film, who would kick someone who was down.

Ivins was a kind of newspaper writer that’s largely gone now that we seem to want mainstream journalism that is polite rather than salty. Hatred and bigotry often get a free pass but comment that searches for actuality is suspect. Ivins stood six-feet tall; for most of her career she was a hard drinker; she never backed down and she was loud and unapologetic. People sometimes forget that Ivins came from a well-connected Texas oil family, and in many ways, she was pure Texas.

It’s true that many if not most of her targets were Republicans – and often in the Texas legislature -- but she went after Democrats too. She tore into Bill Clinton over the welfare bill she thought would penalize children, and she had no graciousness for any kind of meanness or stupidity, or politics that were self-serving.   She seemed consistent in her stands against politicians in the pockets of contributors who would sell out the public good for the sake of their careers and their wallets.

I wish director Janice Engel would take a harder look at Ivins in this documentary, though. Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is mostly a film for people who loved Molly Ivins, and while I am one of them, her legacy might be served more richly with less adulation and more scrutiny. The movie might look at what Ivins accomplished, aside from wow-ing those who agreed with her. How does a voice like Ivins’ contribute to the national conversation? What does it add to the world – and, why would some editors of major, established newspapers refuse to run her columns, even though they’d paid for them.

It would be great to hear what those folks have to say. Some thought Ivins could be cruel, but the movie doesn’t investigate that. What is cruelty in the political world, especially if she mocked willful ignorance? She once lambasted a Texas governor’s ridiculous statement about banning the teaching of Latin in the public schools – because, that governor said, English was good enough for Jesus.

The film acknowledges Ivins’ alcoholism, but only between the lines is there a sense of deeper sadness, that she never found a companion, that she had a bullying father, and  – as the film points out – that all her life Molly Ivins felt like an outsider. You wonder if all the dazzling rhetoric was also a way to protect herself.

Overall, Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is a fun movie, but it could be richer.