Movie review: Divide and Conquer (2018)

It was with some trepidation that I watched Divide and Conquer. Not due to the quality. (The documentary was outstanding.) But more the subject matter. I was a bit ignorant of Roger Ailes, but I knew enough to know that I would rather not know him more.

The documentary is a fascinating look at his history, both personally and professionally. Interviews with childhood friends and professional colleagues reveal what made him tick. I’ll cut to the chase—though none of this will be surprising—he lived in a world consumed by fear and anger. And paranoia. (His office was built to protect him from bullets and other attacks. I immediately thought of Scott Pruitt from the Trump administration.)

What a sad life to be controlled by fear and anger. Even sadder is that he infected the country with these emotions through the immense control he wielded.

He rose to positions of power with The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. After honing his media and manipulation skills there, he moved on to be a self-proclaimed media advisor to Nixon. Arguably, Ailes was the man responsible for getting Nixon elected by controlling and spinning his look on TV.

He continued to work as a political and executive coach for numerous campaigns across the country. Many of the power brokers in Washington, DC owe their political careers to him, including Mitch McConnell. (McConnell is not portrayed as the brightest bulb in this documentary.) Ailes helped the Bush, Reagan, and Trump campaigns.

In the 1990s, he seemingly moved from political coaching to news. He started America’s Talking, a talk show that was presumably a news show. A few years later, NBC sold the show to Gates, thereby creating MSNBC. Ailes was furious. He ultimately got his revenge by creating Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s backing.

Divide and Conquer then focuses on the power, control, and manipulation that occurred at Fox News. Ailes surrounded himself with men like him. Murdoch protected him, Ailes protected the men he hired. The common thread surrounding them was the blatant abuse of power, sexual harassment of women, and promoting women or giving them jobs in return for sexual favors. It turns out, birds of a feather do flock together.

Various women are interviewed about the sexual improprieties that were rampant at Fox News and committed by Ailes. Some were paid off and silenced through settlements. Former workers at Fox News came forward with allegations. Finally, after decades, the dam broke. Women came forward, including a model (Marsha Callahan) from decades earlier who recounts in the documentary what happened to her, how she had to speak up when women were coming forward, and how her son was proud of her for speaking up and supporting other women. The #MeToo movement in action.

Several women were almost employees but denied employment after they did not welcome Ailes’ advances or agree to his transactional propositions for sex with him and other high-level men in the organization. One woman (Kellie Boyle) recounts that after she did not agree to sleep with Ailes in return for doing business with him, she was blacklisted around town; no one would meet with her or hire her. Her career was ruined. Ailes had that sort of power.

(Side note: It was painful to hear words coming from these women’s mouths that reflected the passive role society teaches women to play. Boyle mentioned that when Ailes propositioned her, she tried to get out of the situation without turning him down right there. Why? She didn’t want to risk offending him. Risk offending him, I thought? What about him just offending you? But I recognized this societal training. Women are taught not to offend and to appear accommodating. I do hope that his indoctrination of women is ending with the current generation of girls. It does no service to girls to teach them to be polite and accommodating, especially when their physical, emotional, or psychological safety is concerned. End of soapbox.)

Ailes was your typical bully, seen clearly when he moved to a small town in New York and preceded to try to bulldoze the town council and influence the elections by flooding them with Republican candidates. He strangely bought the town’s newspaper in 2009. (Well, maybe not so strangely. According to the documentary, Ailes seemed to be in a sad competition with Murdoch. Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. Ailes bought the Putnam County Courier and Putnam County News & Recorder.)

In the end, Murdoch didn’t stand by him when the noose tightened around Ailes about the sexual harassment allegations. His career ended with him being locked out of Fox News. Ironically, he was taken down for sex improprieties—Fox News made its name on the sexual improprieties of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He died a year later from a fall in his house.

Unfortunately, his legacy didn’t die with him. We are stuck dealing with the aftermath of the world that he created. A world of fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. A world of divide and conquer. We are stuck with the political creatures that he created over the last four or five decades. The social and political turmoil in the US has his fingerprints all over them. Divide and Conquer will help you recognize his fingerprints.

Movie review: Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2014)

The first half of the movie is difficult to watch. The second half is inspiring. Anita looks at the woman who was unintentionally thrust into the national spotlight after the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

The movie is a collection of interviews with Anita, people that accompanied her to the hearing, witnesses from the hearing, and others as well as recordings of the hearings themselves.

The movie starts with the playing of a voice message left for Anita in 2010 from a woman purporting to be Ginny Thomas, the wife of Clarence Thomas. The voice asks Anita to explain why she did what she did to Clarence almost twenty years earlier. Anita assumes it was a prank call. At the very least, it was surreal.

The unreality of it sets the stage for the congressional hearing that Anita was forced to attend. She was seated across from dozens of Congressmen—middle-aged and older white men—who painfully asked her to repeat her testimony, which included graphic sexual details.

The behavior of the Congressmen made me embarrassed—it ranged from ignorant to ill-informed to hostile. The Republicans attacked her character, her integrity, her honesty, and questioned her motivation for coming forward now. The Democrats simply stood by and let it happen.

Anita was not a witness giving testimony about the integrity and character of a Supreme Court nominee. She herself was on trial.

A few witnesses were called, colleagues that could corroborate stories and details she mentioned to them years earlier when the events were happening. There were other witnesses, but the committee had heard enough. Hearing more would make it harder to ignore her claims or discredit her experiences.

The committee backed off completely from trying to uncover the truth (though one could argue that the committee was never about finding out the truth) when Clarence Thomas spoke. Clarence artfully and immediately turned the conversation to race. This hearing was a “high-tech lynching” of him.

Since race was and still is an incredibly taboo subject in the US, no one dared to question this statement or how it was relevant to descriptions of his behavior and claims of sexual harassment. The hearing turned from the sexual harassment of Anita to the racial victimization of Thomas.

He won the day. Anita was dragged through the mud, humiliated, and belittled—all for doing what she thought was the right thing. Supreme Court nominees undergo extensive background checks. As a former coworker, Anita was approached about her experiences with Clarence and gave what she thought was a confidential statement. It was leaked and her life was never the same.

Anita’s life turned in ways that she couldn’t have imagined. She has gathered thousands of letters and notes, some horrible, some supportive. State officials tried to have her fired, and then the dean of her school fired, and then the law school where she worked shuttered. She received death threats, bomb threats, threats of sexual violence.

The last twenty years may not have been what she had planned for herself but it looks like it took her on what has ultimately been an enriching path. She realized that sexual harassment was just part of the larger issue of gender inequality and has worked since in teaching courses and providing lectures on the topic. She clearly has been an inspiration to so many women and men—yes, men who see the struggles that their own daughters go through.

Two positive statements struck me. One was something her mother told her that helped Anita get through the original ordeal. “You know who you are and you know what you can do. And don’t ever doubt yourself.”

The other one was a statement that Anita made: “Most of us have everything we need to get through a crisis. We just need to tap into it.”

Two extras appear on the DVD with the documentary:

  • Finding Home: A Keynote Address by Anita Hill at the University of South Carolina, October 20, 2011
  • Speaking Truth to Power: An Eve Ensler Curated Performance, October 15, 2011

The first is a talk given by Anita Hill about reimagining equality focused on home—where you come from, where you live—as determining the opportunities you have in life. The second is a panel of performers reading poems, relating experiences, telling stories about speaking truth to power and grabbing power from places of inequality.

Through the documentary, the talk, and the performances, Anita encourages us to find our own voice. Speak out with integrity and courage. Speak truth to power.