Is there anyone in this country looked down upon and misunderstood more than Indigenous people and journalists? It’s not a hypothetical—the answer is yes: Indigenous journalists. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s engrossing documentary Bad Press clearly lays out the plights faced by an Indigenous news team and, in its hyperfocus on Mvskoke Media and the Muscogee Nation, finds hard, broad truths about both the relationship between the people and the reporters that serve them and the ease with which those being reported upon manipulate that relationship.
Of the 574 self-governing tribes operating alongside (or, more often, in conflict with) the U.S., none of their constitutions ensured a free press. So if there’s someone reporting on, say, an embezzling chief, there’s nothing legally fundamental protecting them from retribution. The Muscogee Nation put a protective law in place in 2015, but an emergency legislative session surreptitiously repealed it in 2018. Of all the things to set off lawmaking alarm bells, “journalists having too much freedom” is one of the most fascist. Mvskoke Media was immediately placed under the control of a public official, who started flexing his censorial powers just as quickly. When a constitutional amendment protecting a free press comes onto the docket, butting up against an election that could oust the chief that orchestrated the clandestine repeal, Landsberry-Baker and Peeler are on the ground with unbelievable access.
The nuances of sovereign tribal governments create a perfect microcosm for this story. The structure and size of the Muscogee Nation lend its public affairs a local feel, where executives are relatively available for interview and legislators vote in cramped municipal back rooms. This contrasts with the national implications of its power, making Bad Press the best of all worlds: An impossibly important political story that you can grasp with both hands.
The filmmaking, confident and immersive, imbues the film with gravity. Context is efficient; characters are cultivated. Its procedural construction is thoroughly convincing, involving and educational. We care about the issue, but we care more about it because the issue comes with faces. Bad Press gives us The War Room in Okmulgee, involving us in the legislative and election processes from a perspective even more thrilling than that inside a campaign. These aren’t people fighting for a leader. They’re fighting to stay out of jail, to keep from becoming PR flacks, to keep a nation they love honest and to keep those that compose it informed.
Leading the way is Mvskoke Media reporter Angel Ellis. Ellis is as bombastic and brave a central figure as you could wish for, resolutely charming and a bastion of journalistic aspiration: A foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, citizen-serving machine of passion and integrity. She’s liable to describe an election as giving her a “democracy boner” or flip the camera a celebratory double bird when things go her way. She’s helping put a kid through college and going up against people who’ve tried to blacklist her from the industry.
Through Ellis’ eyes, it’s impossible to stay uninvested. We watch, stomach bottoming out, as the law is repealed with a simple vote. We watch, sitting on our hands, as the new amendment is introduced. Landsberry-Baker and Peeler mostly stay out of the way and let their subjects do the talking—except when there’s a vote at hand, which brings up a counter of “yeas” and “nays” to slowly churn our guts. Myriad candidates hop aboard “free press” as an election issue, though public opinion slowly turns against it…because the current government doesn’t allow the press to cover it—or, more importantly, explain it to voters—leaving a nicely incentivized vacuum for ignorant bloggers and bad-faith actors to fill with their anti-press sentiment.
Initially, we see people on the side of the press. Free speech! Accountability! Information! But when the repeal’s implications are enforced and the journalists’ expert ability to break down things like new laws is restricted, people start to have doubts. They wonder why the journalists aren’t doing hard-hitting news, then wonder why their tax dollars should fund these non-stories. They don’t wonder about the government’s crackdown on all but the fluffiest reportage, but that’s because the government would really rather they didn’t—and everyone who would help nudge them in the right direction has been silenced. We’ve seen versions of this mistrustful cycle run its course through all corners of the media. Those with power and money use their resources to prop up favorable coverage, which leads to suspicion of all other coverage. Investigative journalists looking into Tesla safety have been shadowbanned from Elon Musk’s Twitter; “fake news” chants still echo on the national stage. In the film world, it’s not so much that “Disney bought this positive review” as it is “Disney PR told the movie’s stars and official accounts to share softball interview coverage on social media, leading to exponentially more clicks than any sort of review and making sure that any outlet’s corporate owner pushes for more of the same.”
Getting such a personal look at this effect on a tiny team (we really just see Ellis and her three co-workers) strikes the perfect underdog tone. So too, does its setting. About an hour south of where I grew up in Broken Arrow, Bad Press sweetly captures Okmulgee, Oklahoma and in so doing, a part of the country not often seen casually in the background. It’s refreshing and aesthetically effective. The preponderance of bolo ties, plaid, drawls, branded collegiate gear for OU and OSU, and phrases like “holler if y’all need anything” establishes you in a place more thoroughly than any drone shots. Its rich small-town bullies are as familiar and tangible as its blue-collar good guys. It feels like home—maybe not your home, but a home—which makes the fight for its free press feel all the more vital. It’s nothing as grandiose and cryptic as “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” but the sentiment is still there, embodied Ellis’ team, unassuming and chowing down on midnight Papa John’s as they fight the good fight.
Bad Press is wonderful, tightknit political and journalistic non-fiction, about a place and people close to my heart. It does what small-scale documentaries do best, and have been doing exceptionally since Harlan County, USA: Finding the global in the specific, and finding the personal in the ideological. Where Barbara Kopple found feminism, solidarity, tradition and rampant, violent corporate greed at the heart of her Kentucky miner’s strike, Landsberry-Baker and Peeler find vigilance, accountability and the systems in place to discourage both in the heart of a Muscogee newsroom.
Director: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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