Some of the statistics in “Bad Press” are truly jaw-dropping, to the point where I audibly gasped as they flashed on screen. That’s a big part of what makes co-directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s documentary about the freedom of the press (and lack thereof) on tribal lands so effective. For example, did you know that as sovereign nations that create their own laws, only a few Native American tribes actually have guaranteed freedom of the press?
The film follows the story of Angel Ellis, a reporter for Mvskoke Media in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and her fight against tyranny and censorship. Ellis battles for transparency and full access for her readers in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a small community where everyone knows each other and relies on the shared, communal news experience from the local paper. When Ellis publishes a story that challenges the integrity of higher-ups, she’s fired for insubordination. It’s a corrupt system where journalists lose their jobs for reporting the uncomfortable truths that those in charge would rather keep buried (including accusations of assault).
It’s chilling that journalists are having to rise up for what’s right, and Angel’s willingness to stand for truth and integrity in the face of tribal officials who are pushing back is inspiring but also chilling. This is the type of story that commands and demands our attention, as the issue of freedom of the press is in critical condition.
Angel’s situation comes to a head when the National Council calls an emergency session and votes to repeal the 2015 Free Press Act, which she decides to fight at the ballot box. It won’t be an easy road ahead as she works tirelessly to convince the community to mobilize and vote, and while some of the drier parts of the story deal with the ins and outs of election integrity and countless table discussions, the film eventually becomes an edge-of-your-seat nail biter as everyone sits back and waits for the final ballot results.
The documentary gives an insider look at a world that’s known by very few. By turning the camera into a casual observer, the co-directors’ filmmaking feels immersive and personal. Seeing how Native American journalists and publications operate is interesting, but the voting process on tribal lands is even more so. The efforts to overturn the repeal actually prompted more citizens to register to vote, and this increase in participation is encouraging for the future.
“Bad Press” is a fascinating subject for a documentary, and it manages to be educational and entertaining. If there’s one thing you will get out of this film, it’s that freedom of the press is a right that we should never, ever take for granted.
By: Louisa Moore