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Movie Review: The Hunting Ground

As everyone pays attention to the errors in a single story in Rolling Stone, the more powerful indictment of our higher education system comes from a project that shows just how widespread the problem of sexual assault on colleges campuses truly is

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

I had been planning to review the movie The Hunting Ground for more than a week now, long before the autopsy of the infamous Rolling Stone article concerning a rape at UVA came out and gave rise to a predictable bout of "I told you so" declarations from those who want to pretend that sexual assault on college campuses isn't a real problem. After all, The Hunting Ground does deal with college athletics and an issue that we've written about a lot on this blog. But in the wake of the renewed interest in the Rolling Stone debacle and the wave of denialism ushered in by that failure, it seems even more urgent and timely to talk about a far stronger examination of sexual assault on college campuses.

Because part of the power of The Hunting Ground is that the filmmaking team led by writer-director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering doesn't rely so heavily on one story that if that anecdote were to collapse, the compelling case made by the film would be undone. And while there are certainly some gut-wrenching and horrific accounts of sexual assaults, The Hunting Ground avoids focusing the kind of overwhelming, attention-grabbing accusations that got Rolling Stone into so much trouble. Instead, it is the cumulative weight of the movie, the stacking of similar story upon similar story, that lends so much credibility to the film.

The focus of the movie is actually somewhat surprising, and particularly so for anyone reading the tales from some corners of the Internet designed to make you think that there are hundreds or thousands of examples of unjustly accused college men facing overzealous liberal college administrators. Indeed, the film spends much of its time exploding that idea with simple numbers. It underscores the fact that people are no more likely to falsely report a rape than they are to falsely report other crimes. And it highlights a list of colleges and universities that have had dozens and sometimes hundreds reports of sexual assault in recent years, only to expel a vanishingly small number of alleged assailants. At some schools, no one was expelled over the time frame the movie highlights, despite dozens of reports. If those are the results of a Javert-like disciplinary system, then it's a remarkably ineffective one.

And this is where the movie is at its most scalding: Documenting the repeated failures of our institutions of higher education to protect their students. Rather than being an attempt to prove that college-age men are a group comprised largely of would-be assailants, The Hunting Ground points out that a relatively small number of attackers are responsible for a large portion of the assaults -- because they are allowed to attack over and over again with relative impunity. What was stunning to me was how central the theme of a higher education system indifferent to the suffering of both male and female victims was to the movie.

But the film also doesn't neglect the two factors most often cited as part of the problem on college campuses: Greek life and college athletics. Admittedly, I was never in a fraternity and am (obviously) a fan of college sports, an important disclosure as I say that I found the case against the former to be stronger than the case against the latter.

Much of that comes in the why. Again, The Hunting Ground avoids painting with too broad a brush, noting that there are some fraternities that are known for being the worst offenders in terms of the number of sexual assault allegations they face. And while much of the evidence is anecdotal, there are at least attempts to point to how certain fraternities at certain campuses have desensitized their members to the horrors of sexual assault and encouraged the objectification of women.

When it comes to doing the same with athletics, the film never quite connects the dots. There's a statistic that shows that college athletes are responsible for a disproportionate number of sexual assaults, but the disparity didn't seem large enough (at least to my eyes) to carry the case on its own. And the movie makes much of a sense of entitlement for college athletes and offers some of the usual faculty complaints about football coaches being paid too much. But does anyone really think that if all head football coaches saw their salaries reduced to $100,000, then their players would be less likely to assault women? The Hunting Ground's case against college athletics seems to boil down to the idea that if athletes aren't punished, other athletes are more likely to commit crimes. But anyone who's followed the Fulmer Cup for any period of times knows that college athletes have no more and perhaps even less capacity to consider the consequences of their actions than the average college student, whose ability to consider those consequences is already infinitesimally small. And if the lack of punishment is almost universal on campuses, then how much can a vaguely defined sense of entitlement really contribute to any problem among athletes?

The focus on college athletics brings us to Erica Kinsman. The most newsworthy part of the documentary, at least in the current-events meaning of the term, is the interview with the woman who accused Jameis Winston of sexual assault. One of the unique things about The Hunting Ground is that you get to hear Kinsman and her family tell their story in their own words, and you can assess their credibility for yourself. I found her credible; others will disagree. Kinsman's story doesn't still get us any closer to why college athletics encourage a culture of assault (if they do). But again, while her story commands a good deal of screen time, it is not so integral to the film that if you discount everything she says, the movie's premise about the broader issues on college campuses falls apart.

Ultimately, that's why The Hunting Ground is more effective than the Rolling Stone article, and likely would have been even if Jackie's story hadn't been overwhelmed by inconsistencies and journalistic malpractice. And that is why, aside from perhaps the accused fraternity itself, the people most damaged by the Rolling Stone article are the victims of sexual assault. Just as many of them are finding their voice and contributing to projects like The Hunting Ground, the careless actions of a few are undermining progress. Everyone should see The Hunting Ground, but many won't, and almost everyone has heard about the Rolling Stone article. That imbalance is to some degree unfair to the film, but that slight is well down the list of injustices wrought by one possibly false if horrific tale against dozens of true ones that are harrowing enough to demand action.

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4.5 stars out of 5