“Despite being on the news so much, Gloria is a very private person,” said documentarian Sophie Sartain, who, along with her co-director Roberta Grossman, wooed Allred for two years before the lawyer agreed to be filmed.
“I really prefer to talk about the issues rather than myself,” Allred explained during a phone interview this week.
That’s one of many surprises about “Seeing Allred,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and started streaming Friday on Netflix. It begins with some of the common narratives that have trailed Allred’s more-than-40-year career. In a cameo on “The Simpsons,” she’s termed a “shrill feminist attorney,” and on “South Park,” an exaggerated version of her ridicules a gay man for being homophobic. “Saturday Night Live” portrayed her as a relentless self-promoter, and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel once claimed she was “in league with the devil.”
Through it all, she’s maintained the same perfectly lipsticked smile while confronting her detractors on talk show after talk show.
But there’s more to the camera-ready 76-year-old, the filmmakers believed, and they were determined to show the world.
“It’s very motivating if you have an injustice or a wrong you want to fight against or correct when you set out to make a documentary,” Grossman said. “In this case, we felt that she should be seen as what she is, which is a tireless fighter on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights. Instead, the noise was so critical of her that we wanted to show that she was the real deal.”
In fact, the movie makes a convincing argument that Allred was simply ahead of her time and now, with the #MeToo movement in full swing, the world is simply catching up.
They have a point. Allred was fighting abuses in the Catholic church as early as 1984, and in 2004, she filed the first lawsuit in California challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage; she’s been taking on sexual harassment cases since long before Anita Hill made the term mainstream.
Not that Allred cares either way about how she’s perceived.
“I think I’m very well understood by many people and misunderstood by those who wish to misunderstand, because they have an agenda that is different than mine,” Allred says during an interview in the movie. “I don’t really care.”
It’s a powerful statement when a woman declares she doesn’t give a second thought to what people think of her. It’s enough to make you wonder how she got that way. But good luck getting that information out of her.
During an interview — true to Grossman and Sartain’s assessment — Allred responded to every personal question by forcibly steering the conversation back to her work and her “courageous” clients.
Although she did offer one small morsel to explain how she stays sane amid the insults.
“If people are calling names then that means they don’t have a good argument against what we’re doing,” she said. “So I feel that that’s actually a statement by them that I must be right.”
The reason she doesn’t like talking about herself, she explained, is that there’s only so much time in the day, so she’d rather spend those hours focusing on the fight. That’s also the reason she doesn’t cook or have hobbies and gave up dating long ago.
In the film, she does share a harrowing personal story, a tale she’s revealed before to explain, in part, her dogged commitment to women’s rights. As a young woman while on vacation in Mexico, she went on a date with a doctor, who raped her at gunpoint. The worst was not over, however. When she returned home, she found out she was pregnant and — this being the days before Roe v. Wade — had an illegal abortion that left her hemorrhaging blood. At the emergency room, she was physically healed but also emotionally violated by a nurse who told her, “This will teach you a lesson.”
Sartain and Grossman began filming Allred in 2014, a few months before she started working with women accusing Bill Cosby of drugging and assaulting them. In the movie, Allred explains that she’s reluctant to take on the clients because there’s no legal options for many of them — the statute of limitations has long since expired. So instead, she begins working on changing the statute of limitations itself.
Along the way, through her trademark news conferences, Allred gives the women a platform, which affects the public’s view of the case.
“When those first women came forward in late 2014, early 2015, a lot of people didn’t believe them,” Sartain said. “We saw how public opinion shifted in that situation as more and more women came forward.”
Added Grossman: “In large part because of Gloria, because she was making sure those voices were being heard.”
As allegations of sexual harassment and worse continue to cascade forth, discussions have become heated over how to deal with the claims. Aren’t the accused innocent until proven guilty by a court of law?
As Allred explains, that’s a moot point for many because of how much time has elapsed. But “there’s no statute of limitations on the right to exercise free speech,” she said. “For many [women], this is the only recourse they have — it’s access to the court of public opinion.”
Hence the news conferences, which only fuel Allred’s opponents, who deem them vulgar spectacles. But they have their place, Allred explained. For example, the early 1980s news conference she held for a same-sex couple who had been denied a romantic table at a Los Angeles restaurant felt like a cultural moment.
“I had my clients, who were lesbian partners, speaking on television, and some people had never heard anyone self-identifying as lesbians speaking out on television,” Allred said. “They were businesswomen and very polite and articulate, so we dispelled stereotypes and also fought for legal rights all at the same time.”
Filming for the documentary ended around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, so we see Allred at the women’s march and participating in another protest on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the movie, a couple of men approach the lawyer and get in her face, scolding her about the sin of same-sex marriage. “God’s major courtroom is gonna put you in hell, Gloria,” one says.
“First of all, I want to thank you for expressing your free speech, which you and I both treasure,” Allred replies with her tight, fuchsia smile. “Even though we disagree, I want you to know that you matter.”
And with that, a group of people encircle Allred, creating a barrier between her and the men. They start chanting “Gloria! Gloria!” It’s the kind of scene that would probably seem over-the-top in a feature film, but it’s really happening. And, for a moment, it seems like maybe Allred’s days of being parodied are over.