Alex: "Hey, you're my buddy, okay?"
Boy: "I'm not your buddy. I will fucking end you and shove a broomstick up your ass. You're gonna die fucking in so much pain. I'll cut your face off and shit, I'll bring a knife tomorrow and fuck you up and shit."
This was my unnerving introduction to the world of Alex, a 12-year-old boy whose daily existence is, frankly, hell on earth. Instead of a joyfully awkward middle school experience, Alex's journey has been marked by torturous encounters with pint-sized offenders. His story is featured in Lee Hirsch's latest documentary, Bully, a gut-wrenching portrait of bullying at its worst.
Bully is a wake-up call for a nation that too often chalks up bullying to "kids being kids" and that inappropriately glorifies the triumph of the mighty over the meek. The film will devastate and enrage you as you witness the disgusting brutality of the teenage offenders and the indifference of school officials. You will melt when you watch Laura and Kirk Smalley bury Ty, their 11-year-old son who committed suicide when the torment of school bullies became more than he could bear. You will fume when you watch Murray County, Georgia law enforcement officials respond with callous nonchalance to parents' questions about why police failed to intervene despite repeated reports of bullying in local schools.
Bully masterfully pleads with us to pay attention and take action. There is no way you can watch the film and deny there is a problem. Hirsch beautifully crafts a story of both heartache and hope in a way that will leave you uncomfortably disturbed by the reality of bullying and cautiously optimistic about the potential for change. The film is captivating.
I cannot, however, in good faith, endorse the film. Bully misrepresents the problem.
Bully has and will continue to receive a flurry of press, celebrity endorsements and industry awards. Its message is indeed compelling, but the film misses the mark because it tells an incomplete story.
In Bully, Hirsch features three kids and two families. They hail from Sioux City, Iowa; Tuttle, Oklahoma; Murray County, Georgia; Yazoo County, Mississippi; and Perkins, Oklahoma. Sioux City is -- by a landslide -- the most populous of the bunch with just under 83,000 residents. Four of the five locations are in the South, one in the Midwest. On average, the selected locations are overwhelmingly white with median household incomes well below the national average.
When I first saw the film at a February screening with the filmmaker, I was immediately distracted by the inordinate attention paid to small-town America. I kept waiting for a new story line in the inner city or the suburbs, but to no avail.
Following the screening, I asked Hirsch why his characters were deliberately situated in such a particular locale. He said he really liked the "Americana" of it.
My distraction turned to thoughts of how this depiction might affect viewers. I knew everyone who saw the film would be moved by it -- how could you not be? But I also knew that because of the film's chosen locations, some people would see the problem not as their own, but as one that is found in the backwards and uneducated South where folks talk with a heavy accent and mosey around in heavy boots.
Bullying transcends class, race and geography. Bullies and their victims are everywhere and are everyone's problem.
Hirsch's scope is too narrow to ultimately have the widespread impact that his film could potentially have had. As an acclaimed filmmaker, Hirsch could have used his leverage to expose the pervasiveness of bullying in every corner of the country, to demonstrate that no child is immune to its life-changing effects.
I fear instead that those demographics not reflected in the film -- basically everyone except simple small-town folks -- will leave the theater troubled by what they've seen but ultimately detached from the issue. They will feel a moment of sadness, perhaps, and go about their lives without giving the matter much more thought. Bully, then, becomes a missed opportunity for real change.
To upend the bully culture prevalent in so many of our schools and communities, we must all accept ownership of the problem.
When you go see the film, try to see beyond Hirsch's "Americana" and recognize that the stories of the protagonists could just as easily be found in big cities or posh suburbs as in the small towns featured. Understand that the problem is much larger than depicted and requires a concerted effort on behalf of parents, teachers, administrators, community members and, of course, students if real awareness and lasting change are to occur.
No child should ever have to endure what Alex has endured. No parents should ever have to bury their bullied child. Stand up for the victims and silence the bullies.
Ashley Bryan is a student in the Education Policy and Management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She formerly taught seventh and eighth grade in Dallas with Teach For America. As a native Texan, she frequently wears heavy boots and sometimes talks with a heavy accent.
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