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Culture / Entertainment

Raising Hell With Molly Ivins – the Inside Story of the Documentary Shaking Up Sundance

True Texas Original Gets Another Moment

BY // 01.29.19

Molly Ivins, journalist, progressive political commentator, author and humorist, was six towering feet of Texas cleverness, candor and courage.

Those who knew this Houston-raised pioneer and those who know of her understand that she took no prisoners and pulled no punches. She skewered the corrupt and threw barbs at the right, left, Democrats and Republicans alike with her razor-sharp wit.

Ivins is a Lone Star State legend, and now she’s getting even more exposure. Park City, Utah, is getting a healthy dose of the fiery-haired firebrand at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins premiered Monday night at Sundance. Directed by Janice Engel, written by Engel and Monique Zavistovski and produced by James Egan, Engel and Houstonian Carlisle Vandervoort, this documentary charts Ivins’ stunning life, ambitions and legacy.

It tells the tale of how the progressive Ivins put her stamp on politics and turned heads with her uncompromising honesty, no matter how uncomfortable it might make people.

“Molly’s legacy is really that it’s up to us. It’s up to us to do the heavy lifting. It’s up to us to have civic responsibility. We are the deciders,” Engel tells PaperCity. “She did this speech so many times, but one time in particular, one on Idaho public TV, she looked right into the camera, right into every one of us and said ‘This is our deal.’ She’s right. This is our deal.

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“I really want people to understand what it takes to have courage, what it means to really speak truth to power. And to really stand up for people who didn’t have a voice. That’s what Molly did. She had such tremendous courage.”

That was the crux of all things Molly Ivins. She said it myriad different ways, through thousands of covetable and quotable one-liners that are sprinkled all throughout the documentary.

You could say they all boil down to one point. “Molly Ivins said, ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t bitch. That’s in Article 27 of the Constitution.’ That was in 1991!” Engel says.

molly ivins (molly's personal collection)
Molly’s legacy lives on. (Photo from Molly Ivins’ personal collection)

The director weaves Ivins’ story together through Molly’s own words, courtesy of clips of her appearances on everywhere from CNN and C-SPAN to The Late Show with David Letterman, and a slew of loving interviews.

A variety of Ivins’ favorite people paint her picture, like Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather, Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer, her sister Sara and brother Andy, the former president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, novelist Anne Lamott and more.

Early on in the documentary, a clip of the renowned reporter captures Ivins’ ethos: “I’m A Texan. I drive a pickup truck. I drink beer. I cuss. I hunt. I’m a liberal. So what?”

But Long before she became a Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist and syndicated columnist putting the pithy in politics — at the height of her popularity, her column was carried by 400 newspapers— she was a young River Oaks resident, St. Johns School student who, unsurprisingly, wrote for The Review.

Ivins later studied at Smith College and Columbia University. The documentary maps her movement back and forth across the country from the Minneapolis Tribune to The Texas Observer to The New York Times. She covered crime in Minnesota, Elvis Presley’s funeral in Tennessee, chicken plucking in the mountains.

The documentary’s authenticity comes from the approval of Ivins’ estate — the ACLU and The Texas Observer — years spent at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Ivins’ own notes dating back to her childhood, all the talk show footage and Ivins’ many books.

The curation process was tough. “Oh my god. I was culling material, I was editing it myself for five years, besides the 45 interviews I did,” Engel says. “I did a select reel. I have a select reel that’s over seven hours long.”

Engel laughs. “How do you pick and choose?”

Engel, a Californian, admits she wasn’t always a member of the Molly Ivins constituency. She didn’t find out about her until her producing partner, James Egan, urged her to see a performance of the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, starring Kathleen Turner.

“I got the ticket and I was knocked out,” Engel says. “It was Molly, it was her words, it was who she was. I remember when I got home I got online and Googled Molly Ivins. Clips came up and I said holy shit. I mean, a laugh a minute.”

And Ivins knew how to wield that humor. “She was wildly funny. Jim Hightower says it in the film. ‘Molly knew humor was the door key to the brain.’ And she knew how to unlock that little door to get people to really listen to her,” Engel notes.

That’s what allowed her to socialize with politicians and people all across the political spectrum.

Molly Ivins’ Torments

Raise Hell shines a light on Ivins’ strengths, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from her foibles.

“We need icons that have that courage, and she was real,” Engel tells PaperCity. “She was very real. She had flaws, you’ll see it in the film. She was a hardcore alcoholic.”

Ivins was known for drinking men under the table, but many didn’t know the extent of her drinking.

Her breast cancer came back several times before she died in January 2007. “She decided to get sober in the last 18 months of her life. Most people would say ‘I’m dying, who cares?’ What’s so interesting to me is Molly could speak truth to power. In the end, she decided to face her own truth,” Engel says. “And wanted to go out clear-eyed and fully aware, fearless.”

The story has been six-plus years in the works, but timing is everything.

“I think there couldn’t be a better time for Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins to be unleashed upon a hungry public than right now. It’s unbelievable. Talk about prescient. So much of what she said is happening right now,” Engel says.  

 “There were different points where my producing partners and I would say we have to have it ready by the next election cycle, we have to have it ready for the 2016 election cycle. It would have been buried,” Engel says. “People are hungry and ready to hear her.”

Ivins said it best herself: “You can’t ignore politics, no matter how much you’d like to.”

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