November 13, 2019

‘Raise Hell’ Chronicles the Wit and Wisdom of Journalist Molly Ivins

Photo by Robert Bedell/Magnolia Pictures

Molly Ivins, the funny, fearless, firebrand columnist, author and political pundit who blazed trails for female journalists and championed First Amendment and civil rights, died of cancer in 2007. But the irrepressible “Mouth of Texas” is speaking out once more in the timely, engaging documentary “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” opening in theaters Sept. 13.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Janice Engel was captivated by Kathleen Turner’s portrayal of the larger-than-life Texan when she saw “Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins” at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012. She immediately wanted to bring Ivins’ story to the screen. She reached out to Ivins’ former assistant and estate executor, and began a funding, research and asset-gathering process that would take 6 1/2 years. The resulting film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival this year.

“Molly Ivins was brilliant, fascinating and wildly funny. She spoke truth to power and gave a voice to people who didn’t have one. She used humor to get people to pay attention. That was her way in,” Engel told the Journal. “She called George [W.] Bush ‘the Little Shrub,’ which I thought was hilarious. I totally related to her in many ways.”

A Jewish New Yorker by birth, Engel, like Ivins, “grew up an outsider, feeling different. Molly bucked authority and so did I. I always cared about underdogs. I could never play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” she said. “As I researched and got to know her and talked to her friends and colleagues, I realized there were an incredible amount of parallels between us.”

Engel had access to Ivins’ archives, housed at the University of Texas at Austin, and personal photos from family members and friends. She amassed over 300 hours of footage of Ivins and more than 45 interviews with Ivins’ colleagues, her siblings and notables including Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow. Only “a few Republicans said no,” Engel said. 

Going in, she wanted to emphasize Ivins’ proud Texan side, her courage to speak out when others would not, and give viewers a sense of her larger-than-life personality. “She was an outsider and chose to stay that way. She couldn’t be bought and that allowed her to write her opinions.

She was so prescient. Things that she wrote about 30 years ago are happening right now,” Engel said. The 6-foot-tall redhead was also an alcoholic who could “drink people under the table. Drinking was her entrée into the boys’ club. But at the end of her life, when her cancer returned, Molly got sober,” Engel noted. “She decided to go out clear-minded and face her own truth.”

Engel, who fondly recalls watching black-and-white movies in her father’s lap at an early age and pretended to be sick to stay home and watch films, followed her cinematic obsession to USC film school and made music videos before segueing to documentaries. These include TV series about drug addiction and plastic surgery. “Real life, people, real stories — that’s who I am. But I still want to do narrative [films],” she said. Engel also makes short documentaries about Holocaust survivors, liberators and rescuers for What We Carry, the education program she created for students in middle school and above. The name refers to the few possessions Jews carried with them into the camps. 

“Molly Ivins was brilliant, fascinating and wildly funny. She spoke truth to power and gave a voice to people who didn’t have one.” — Janice Engel

A “99%” Ashkenazi Jew whose grandparents collectively came from Russia and Austria-Hungary, Engel grew up in a Reform home in Massapequa Park, N.Y. “We celebrated the holidays but weren’t super religious. I was confirmed, but it was not fashionable for girls to be a bat mitzvah then,” she said. She doesn’t go to synagogue and describes herself as a secular Jew. 

“In some ways, my path is much more spiritual, has more of an Eastern bent,” she said. “I’ve been to India three times and I didn’t go to Israel until 2014.” 

Engel and her wife married 25 years ago under a chuppah at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, with an Indian woman officiating. “We both broke the glass,” she said. “It was all about being inclusive. For me, being Jewish is very cultural. There’s a tribal thing that extends beyond the religion. It’s who you are inside.”

Engel, who teaches documentary film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, thinks the enthusiastic film festival response to “Raise Hell” bodes well for its theatrical release, which will be followed by a streaming run on Hulu. “Molly’s driving this bus. We’re just blessed to be on the ride. It has its own life,” Engel said. She thinks Ivins would love the documentary. “I think she’d be happy that it’s not a hagiography, that it’s warts-and-all. I think she’d love that all her friends are in it, that we reached out to as many people as we could from her circle.”

The filmmaker is eager to introduce her one-of-a-kind subject to a new generation. “I’m proud to share this incredible journey that I’ve had. Each project is a journey and an education. The best thing about being led into Molly’s life through her friends and her family is we now get to share it,” Engel said. She hopes people will be inspired by Ivins’ messages and the way she conveyed them. “We need to laugh so that we can find our way back to the table and talk to each other. We need to come together and save our democracy,” she said. “It starts with us.”

“Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” opens in theaters Sept. 13.