“She Said” portrays the power of journalism but neglects to cover figures that ignited #MeToo
Director Maria Schrader’s She Said has all the staples of any journalism-centered film. The two-hour and nine-minute feature delivers plenty of paper-ridden cubicles, half-drunk Starbucks lattes, pocket notebooks, and of course, dramatic staff conference calls. The film undoubtedly has powerful moments, punctuated by a sophisticated and well-regarded staff. It has all the ingredients of a blockbuster, and yet, She Said falls short when compared to holy grail, biographical journalism movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.
As a journalism major with a profound interest in covering inequity within the workplace and a young woman navigating a male-dominated industry, I thought She Said would hit me like a ton of bricks. I was ready to cry in my polyester theater seat, comforted by over-salted popcorn and iced tea. My expectations were too high and the build-up to my viewing too suspenseful.
Nevertheless, the care with which the narrative of She Said was crafted, particularly the director and producers’ trauma-informed approach to storytelling is worthy of commendation.
She Said tells the real-life story of New York Times journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor uncovering Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and manipulation. Based on the autobiography of the same name, penned by the two journalists, the film follows Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they call famous actresses, track down former employees of Weinstein’s company Miramax while convincing their sources to go on the record. The 2017 story that was published as a result of their investigation, along with the term #MeToo originated by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, sparked an international movement and conversation surrounding sexual assault, particularly in the workplace.
From the beginning of production, Schrader said there would be no rape scenes or naked women in the movie, nor any direct shots of an actor portraying Weinstein. Producer Dede Gardner also emphasized the importance of honoring the survivors portrayed in She Said.
“This whole thing is about reclamation of agency and voice,” Gardner said in an interview with The New York Times. “If you’re ever going to try to open things up, it felt like you certainly had to do it on this one.”
This focus on the survivors that risked their livelihoods and safety to speak out is evident from the film’s opening scene. Instead of a bustling newsroom, She Said opens with a shot of an unidentified woman in 1992 Ireland, working on a movie set as a runner. A minute later, the young woman is seen running through the streets of a town, tears streaming down her face.
Cut to 2016, Twohey convinces survivors of sexual assault to go on the record regarding their traumatic experiences with then-President-elect Donald Trump. This story was released weeks before the 2016 election. Five months later, when editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) asks fresh-off maternity leave Twohey to investigate Weinstein with Kantor, Twohey responds discouragingly, “I worry if it will make a difference. These women spoke out about Trump and he got elected.”
Still, the two take on the story, navigating slamming doors, dropped phone calls and suspicious black Suburbans. At one point, after Kantor realizes she flew all the way to California to track down a source that was out of the country, she calls Twohey. “I wish I smoked or something,” Kazan as Kantor laments. “All I am doing is staring at a brick wall and thinking, ‘fuck.’” It is in minor interactions like these where the actresses shine the most. Both Mulligan and Kazan embody their real-life counterparts with a sense of candor and compassion, leaning into their characters’ family lives when necessary, but not overwhelming their portrayal with domesticity.
Later in their investigation, we learn the woman in the opening shot is Laura Madden (played by Jennifer Ehle in present-day). Madden is a former assistant of Weinstein, and She Said portrays her as a mother of four, coping with a cancer diagnosis, initially reluctant to share and relive her story.
Madden expressed that seeing herself portrayed in the movie is like “watching your own car crash.” Other survivors included in Twohey and Kantor’s story were also consulted during the production of She Said. Notably, actress Ashley Judd played herself in the film and commented on her decision to do so in a statement to The New York Times.
“I have been describing Harvey Weinstein sexually harassing me since I came downstairs into the lobby of that hotel because my dad was waiting there for me and said he could tell something devastating had just happened to me,” Judd said, referencing being sexually assaulted by Weinstein during a business meeting in 1996. “There was no accountability for what I described. Playing myself in ‘She Said’ is a natural evolution.”
Despite the insight that shaped She Said, other survivors echoed Madden’s feelings of discomfort. Zelda Perkins (played by Samantha Morton), another former assistant of Weinstein, now an influential reformer of non-disclosure agreements, told the Times she was initially unhappy with the way her character’s storyline was written.
“I was pretty upset. Not because anybody had done anything wrong. It’s because the script had gone through a process of development,” Perkins said.
Perkins told Schrader that parts of her portrayal, specifically her tide-turning conversation with Kantor, were misguided. Earlier versions of the screenplay had Zelda mentioning “other issues” within the conversation that the producers wanted to explore. Perkins said she wanted the conversation with Kantor to be represented as accurately as possible.
I take no issue with Schrader’s accuracy and precision in translating Twohey and Kantor’s work to the screen. Ultimately, She Said retains a significant amount of ethos because of the creators’ involvement of both journalists and survivors.
Yet, I wish there would’ve been more contextualization regarding what allowed the pair’s story to have the impact it did. For years leading up to its publication, activists and survivors worked tirelessly to draw attention to workplace harassment, as well as the injustice and sexism within Hollywood. While actresses like Alyssa Milano and Ashley Judd are inaccurately credited with starting the #MeToo Movement, Tarana Burke used the hashtag for the first time over a decade before Twohey and Kantor’s story was published.
This is not to take away from Twohey and Kantor’s skill nor is my statement intended to diminish the sacrifices made by the survivors who chose to break their silence through the article. It is simply an acknowledgment that more well-known, privileged people are often positioned as saviors, depriving women of color like Tarana Burke their due.
Yes, She Said specifically follows the work Twohey and Kantor did as explained in their book. Yes, the #MeToo Movement’s resurgence began after the publishing of their story. I still believe Burke and other activists’ contributions should have been recognized, either within the film or in the statements made about the article’s long-term impact prior to the credits.
Nevertheless, She Said persists, portraying survivors’ stories with an equal amount of sorrow and care. For many, the film is a painful reminder of systemic injustice. Still, interwoven is a message of hope and perseverance. As both the real-life Twohey and her on-screen character explained to sources, “I can’t change what happened to you in the past, but together we may be able to use your experience to help protect other people.”
Story originally published in Keke Magazine.
Design by Isa Luzarraga with photos from Vanity Fair.