Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins introduces Molly Ivins to a new generation.
By Courtney Runn, Photo courtesy of Molly Ivins’ personal collection
In life, Molly Ivins’ sharp wit and Texas twang did not discriminate, delivering swift blows across the aisle cushioned with humor and a twinkle in her eye. In death, her message of dissent lives on through Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.
The documentary exploring the late journalist’s life and career premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and screened at South By Southwest three times this week. Its SXSW premiere Monday included an appearance by Cecile Richards and offered Austinites a chance to spend time with the notorious and beloved journalist again.
“We brought Molly home,” Director Janice Engel says. “We brought Molly home to those who loved and missed her most. … A lot of the people [at the premiere]had not seen each other since Molly’s memorial.”
The documentary was a six-year project for Engel, who also produced the film. While Engel never met Ivins, she now hears her voice in her head daily after spending six years meticulously sorting the “mountain of material” on Ivins’ life.
Though she was born in California and grew up in Houston, Ivins adopted Austin as her home when she covered “the lege” for The Texas Observer. Her legendary journalism career began at the Minneapolis Tribune and took her toThe New York Times, but she always came back to Texas.
“Molly developed that extraordinary voice. It was her professional Texan voice,” journalist Lou Dubose says in the documentary. “It was sort like of where Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain. It’s where Molly Ivins became Molly Ivins.”
While her fiery writing garnered hate mail, her column was syndicated in 400 publications at its peak, and even the recipients of her criticism couldn’t help but like her. One of her primary political targets, President George W. Bush—nicknamed “Shrub” by Ivins—called her a “Texas original” upon her death in 2007, noting the nation would miss her “quick wit and commitment.”
The documentary delves into her career path, memorable articles and tiffs with editors with a vitality that transcends the decades. Interviews with Rachel Maddow and Dan Rather, among others, showcase her enduring career legacy, but it is the interviews with childhood friends and family members that offer a glimpse into her personal life.
Raise Hell depicts a poignant image of Ivins, and while it treats her with dignity and tenderness, the documentary acknowledges it is impossible to separate the journalist from the alcoholic from the woman who never quite fit in from the girl growing up with a quasi-abusive father. There is a moment in the documentary of an old clip in which a reporter asks Ivins about never getting married and whether she regretted not having children. Before deflecting with her signature humor, she pauses. Before her eyes crinkle with laughter, they dim.
“Everybody knew she was an alcoholic,” Engel says. “Molly would want the truth because she wanted the truth at the end of her life. She got sober in the last 18 months of her life. Talk about courage.”
This courage permeated her personal life and defined her professional life. She stayed true to her writing voice and beliefs, whether that meant leaving The New York Times or criticizing and not voting for President Bill Clinton.
“The greatest quote I’ve ever heard [is], ‘Evil does not need your help, just your indifference,’ and that applies to this film,” Engel says. “Molly was railing against indifference.”
In the clips of Ivins scattered throughout the documentary, her words sound familiar, as if she were addressing a 2019 audience. While some see her as a political prophet, Engel says Ivins was a dedicated “student of history” and was keenly aware of the cycles of humanity.
“In a way, she’s more relevant now than she was then,” Engel says.
“There are some things that scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself,” Ivins said in a 2004 talk while promoting her book Bushwacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America. “Now don’t you know that that’s what we do in this country over and over? We get so scared…so scared of communism, of crime, of drugs, illegal aliens, terrorism that we think we can make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free. That’s a logical proposition that won’t hold a drop of water. But it’s amazing how consistent that response is in American history, and we are in another such time.”
In her final years, as she fought cancer, Ivins continued to write and speak. Though she wielded a mighty pen, she was human, and her friends remember a miserable few years of personal grief. Behind the popularity and passion and bravado was a woman who questioned whether she was loveable, whether she was worth taking care of herself. The documentary ends on a bittersweet note, with Ivins choosing to get sober but ultimately passing away in 2007 at the age of 62.
Though clearly a celebration with saint-like reverence, Raise Hell offers fans a loving tribute, critics a humanizing perspective and future generations a history lesson. Whether you agree or disagree with Ivins’ politics, it is difficult to ignore her vivacious personality, her enduring love for Texas and her mark on journalism.
“So keep fighting for freedom and justice, beloveds,” Ivins said. “But don’t you forget to have fun doing it.”