A Few Good Journalists: BAD PRESS at SF Film Festival

By Jason Godbey

In the United States Constitution, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Freedom of the press is something we hold sacred here in the U.S., but did you know there are places within our borders that do not guarantee that basic human right to their citizens? In the case of Native American lands, a free press is not guaranteed in their constitution. 

Such is the case for the citizens of Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma. There, members of a tribal council decide whether or not they should have a free and independent press. For the members of Mvskoke Media, the one press organization covering Muscogee Creek, their careers and livelihoods are at the whim of the council. Angel Ellis, a journalist for Mvskoke Media, finds herself in the fight of her life when the council decides to repeal the law that once granted freedom of the press. 

Bad Press raises many issues and questions concerning the press and their responsibility to the community, and even though this community is made up of 89,000 people, a small fraction of the U.S. population, these issues and questions are universal. Questions like: how do you cover an election when you have a vested interest in the outcome? What are the responsibilities of the press in a democracy? Do we even have a democracy if the press is not free and independent?

The film shines a light on a small community dealing with issues of corruption in government. The repeal of freedom of the press comes just after a story of sexual harassment allegations against the chief were uncovered by Mvskoke Media. There are politicians accused of various illegal activities which the public would not be aware of if it weren’t for the press. 

Directors Rebecca Lansberry-Baker and Joe Peeler drop us right into the action, stopping on occasion to briefly explain the politics of the situation. We’re taken on a journey of policies and politics of a world not often seen on screen. As the stakes increase throughout the course of the film, Angel Ellis and her fellow journalists find themselves caught in the middle of this conflict. Will their organization be forced to take orders from a tribal council who stands to benefit from their silence, or will a precedent be struck for freedom of the press for all First Nations people?

Cinematographer Tyler Graim captures the beauty of the big sky of Oklahoma and the honest emotions on the faces of interview subjects, often in locked off shots with very little use of handheld. Although this is a smaller, intimate film, it’s shot as cinematically as any Hollywood epic, letting the real drama play out in its own time. 

Lansberry-Baker and Peeler have masterfully constructed the film. Telling a story about politics is never easy. It’s particularly difficult when the audience is mostly unfamiliar with the subject matter. We never get lost or lose the human elements of the story. All the emotional moments are earned, and while every film is ultimately designed to manipulate the audiences’ emotions, we never feel manipulated. 

Bad Press reminds us of the importance of a free press in a democracy. It’s a wakeup call to those who have taken a free press for granted. The framers of our Constitution realized that a free and independent press and an educated electorate are essential to a democracy. Films like Bad Press are important because places like Muskogee Creek are microcosms of America. The press is always in danger of being shut down or shut out by those who have a vested interest in its silence. 

The miracle of films like Bad Press is that they manage to make these heavy subjects relatable and present them in a way that’s entertaining, heartful, passionate, and true. In a world where everyone carries a camera and a means of broadcasting in their pocket, Bad Press reminds us of the power of that camera and the responsibility with which it must be tempered. For anyone with an interest in media or politics, this film is a must-see.

Bad Press has is still making its way around the festival circuit. Follow us here for updates on movie releases.

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