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‘Roe v. Wade’ and the Ugly Future of the Movies

A conservative-backed docudrama about the landmark Supreme Court abortion case is set to hit theaters later this year. Is a polarized country ready for far-right cinema?

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“I don’t think there’s a single crew member that thinks, ‘Oh, this is a great idea for a movie,’” one actor told The Daily Beast, speaking anonymously.

The movie in question is Roe v. Wade, the forthcoming film drama—directed by Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn—about the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision affirming a woman’s right to seek an abortion. According to The Daily Beast, the Roe v. Wade script reveals a characterization of abortion so spiteful and grim that even the movie’s cast and crew have at turns disavowed Loeb and Allyn’s approach. Hence, the anonymous actor’s own apprehension.

For Roe v. Wade, Loeb and Allyn have recruited an all-star cast, as far as right-wing agitprop goes. There’s Tomi Lahren, the web pundit who, for the record, supports abortion rights. There’s Milo Yiannopoulos, the activist whose Nazi sympathies and goofy provocations have humiliated American conservatism. There are real actors, too: Jon Voight, Stacey Dash, and Robert Davi, all right-wing activists in their spare time. Earlier this month, Stephen Baldwin—the born-again Christian actor and Fox News contributor—quit the cast, reportedly over concerns about the vulgar, immature script. The film’s investors have expressed similar concerns about the project. “The film reinforces lies that have been told over and over,” one potential investor told The Hollywood Reporter in a story published last week. “All the weird fake news about abortion is in there. All stuff that is easily debunked.” The script also includes a scene in which the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, on her deathbed, vows to “exterminate the Negro population” through legalized abortion.

The production has been disastrous, as Loeb and Allyn have struggled to ensure that their film—which was set to finish shooting this past weekend—will ever meet a release date. Last week, a member of the production crew assaulted Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer and confiscated his notes from the set. The actor Corbin Bernsen, who plays Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun—who, crucially, wrote the court’s majority opinion in Roe—justified the assault by noting to Sommer that “the movie’s been under great attack.” Presumably, Bernsen is referring to the bad press surrounding the script, the cast and crew departures, and Loeb’s financial shortfall—all setbacks of Loeb’s own making. While Focus Features prepares to launch a shimmering Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, at Christmas, Loeb and Allyn intend to rival that feel-good picture with the cinematic equivalent of a Glenn Beck segment, starring Loeb himself. Polarization alone might render Roe v. Wade enticing to some great portion of the country, if not for the odds that the movie will open in only a handful of theaters, if at all, before resigning itself to various clearance racks.

In one crucial sense, the film’s jankiness is a crucial component; it underscores the conservative movement’s alienation from Hollywood, hence Loeb’s fundraising troubles and his reliance on defunct stars. Before Roe v. Wade is even released, Loeb and Allyn have enrolled their project in a strange tradition of right-wing filmmaking—a genre where pundits turned ill-equipped directors, and actors turned cranks, churn out camcorder schlock. Loeb, a first-time director, is in notorious company. In May, Donald Trump pardoned the conservative documentarian Dinesh D’Souza, who served probation for breaking federal campaign finance laws six years ago. The most successful director in his genre—though he’s no Michael Moore—D’Souza has released three right-wing propaganda features to U.S. movie theaters, including his one wide release, 2016: Obama’s America, which grossed $33.5 million at the box office in 2012; and his 2016 film, Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, which earned significantly less money than Obama’s America at the box office and won a Razzie for Worst Picture. The nearest contender for D’Souza’s box office success is Paul Johansson’s Atlas Shrugged trilogy, the first entry of which—“the first tea party movie”—grossed $4.6 million in its limited spring 2011 release. In web media, conservative activists take a guerrilla approach in their filmmaking. Last year, The Washington Post humiliated right-wing documentarian James O’Keefe by blowing the cover on one of his undercover “sting” operations, in which he and his associates meant to dupe one of the newspaper’s reporters into believing a woman’s falsified account of having sex with Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and then having an abortion. Clearly, abortion rights are the gravest concern among right-wing culture warriors, including the provocateurs behind the lens.

Among critics, movies with an aggressively right-wing agenda and identity are always more trouble than they’re worth at the box office. The movies are marginal and artless. They’re not designed to entertain, or even inform, so much as they exist to prove, however pathetically, that right-wing filmmakers might flourish apart from Hollywood’s center-left orthodoxies. Given Loeb’s struggles in his latest fundraising round, Roe v. Wade may never even make it into limited release. To date, the headlines and the interviews about the movie have proved entertaining enough—but God forbid the movie hits theaters right as the Supreme Court, including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch and possibly (pending Senate confirmation) Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh, might also re-litigate Roe v. Wade. The worst-case scenario: a sequel.