Lorena Bobbitt testified to having endured multiple instances of abuse and sexual assault from her husband of five years, John Wayne Bobbitt, in court in 1993. Millions watched Lorena's testimony, but many were less interested in what she lived through than what she was ultimately driven to do: Lorena was on trial for cutting off John's penis in the middle of the night. Lorena was acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity while John was ruled not guilty of assaulting Lorena. Lorena's name endured as punchline; John, penis reattached, was lifted up by Howard Stern and tried to make a career in pornography.
Before Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson, American media rushed to capitalize on the Lorena Bobbitt case with lurid, misogynist coverage and dick jokes aplenty. Can Amazon's "Lorena," directed by Joshua Rofé and executive produced by Jordan Peele, help correct the record? Here's what the reviews have to say:
In Too Many Sad Ways, The Case Still Feels Relevant
The Lorena Bobbitt case encompasses a multitude of issues that are equally relevant today, 26 years later: the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle; the fear and shame that keep women from reporting abuse; the dangerous allure of instant celebrity; and above it all, our endless, unhealthy appetite for tawdry tabloid scandals — especially when they involve sex and a woman scorned.
The media attention from the time was, as you would expect, salacious and gross. There were a zillion jokes from comedians, as you'd expect, with only Whoopi Goldberg coming off well. Howard Stern was truly the worst then, saying to John at one point, "I don't even buy this whole thing, that he was raping her and stuff. She's not that great-looking. She's got a lot of pimples, your ex-wife." (I gasped.) John, clearly a troubled, violent person who has never gotten life right, actually became a folk hero, and Lorena — a terrorized survivor of domestic violence — was largely vilified and caricatured.
In Hindsight, Some Of The Media Coverage From The Time Is More Disturbing In Light Of #MeToo Revelations
In ways both direct and indirect, the docuseries cannily demonstrates that, despite all the shit that hit the fan in 1994 and the remainder of the 1990s, things haven't changed all that much. A few moments after that Goldberg clip, Rofé includes another of The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt explaining to Charlie Rose (!) that women have been abused for centuries and that "the tables are turned a little bit." Rose, whose record of sexual harassment wouldn't become public knowledge for another two-plus decades, doesn't look the least bit concerned while listening to Pollitt speak.
"Lorena" points a finger at a media industry that paid more attention to John Wayne than the woman he regularly abused and raped. And it even goes as far as to do so through a #MeToo lens, subtly showing us footage of people like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer reporting on the story and reminding us that who is telling a story can often mean just as much as the story they're telling.
'Lorena' Emphasizes How The Nature Of Lorena's Crime Distracted From John's — And Also Stumbles On That Point
If I had to guess as to Rofe's goal in spending so much time covering and recovering the crime and two trials, I'd say that he's trying to put all of those all-too-easy jokes on ice. And yes, that's a penis-on-ice joke and I should be ashamed. What's shocking is how many people in positions of authority and respect are reduced to giggling and cracking wise when they talk about the Bobbitt case. Doctors. Nurses. Reporters. Attorneys on both sides. Some have the good sense to look embarrassed.
After getting "sidetracked" by pictures of John's severed member — and yes, viewer, you too will see these images without warning, several times — one juror in John's trial admits, "We maybe lost sight of what he truly was on trial for."
The Filmmakers Are Decidedly On Lorena's Side, But Overlook Some Details And Devote Too Much Time To John
"Lorena," like Lorena's own defense team in 1994, sets out to prove that she didn't cut off her husband's penis for the hell of it as so many terrified men immediately assumed, but because she was a desperate woman trapped in a horrifically abusive marriage from which she saw no escape.
Lorena does overlook some less flattering details about its namesake protagonist, like a 1997 assault charge she faced after hitting her mother (she was later acquitted), and the fact that she and John appeared together on The Insider in 2009[…] it's odd that Lorena neglects to mention that the two actually have been in each other's presence on national television within the past decade.
There's far less time spent on Lorena's life now — she runs a foundation that helps educate and support survivors of domestic violence — than there is about John's post-surgery escapades: his multiple appearances on Howard Stern, his failed attempt at a porn career, his botched penis-enlargement surgery, his brushes with the law, and his tumultuous stint as a "celebrity greeter" at the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada.
Pointless Reenactments, A Prime Documentary Sin, Take Up Too Much Of The Four Episodes
Give some consideration to why you're using reenactments. Is it just because you need filler footage to cut away to? Maybe that's a sign you need to either be more aesthetically creative or find a different subject. The reenactments in Lorena do nothing other than provide faceless, dully shot visualizations of events without generating any emotional or visceral response.
In between forceful testimonies and interviews, it lapses too frequently into distracting reenactments of people watching TV, folding laundry, holding hands. That bizarre cutesy affect extends to superfluous directorial flourishes like multiple zoom-ins on a "Virginia is for Lovers" sign, or underlining Catholic guilt with cuts to nuns praying, that aren't half as clever as they want to be.
The most frustrating thing about these staged gimmicks is that they prove especially unnecessary given the the very real footage and cultural insights that "Lorena" otherwise has in spades.
Despite Its Faults, 'Lorena' May Be The Most Comprehensive And Sobering Take On The Case Yet
Although there are hints of it earlier, it's the fourth episode that finally gets to a substantive engagement with how domestic violence was treated in the early '90s, the number of states in which marital rape was either not criminalized or required a complicated and steep burden of proof. Here, the talking heads don't view Lorena as a joke. They view her as a key data point in a conversation that also included Anita Hill and other women who, by action or deed, caused people to confront the apathetic or callous attitudes they had when the Bobbitt story broke.
Whenever possible, it juxtaposes images of everyone now, older and a little harder around the edges, versus them all blinking through disbelief at what was unfolding before. None, however, strike quite as hard as Lorena herself. The court footage of her testimony, in which she sobs while trying to recount the specifics of being raped, is especially gut-wrenching — and Rofés lets it be so, playing as much as possible without providing the relief of cutting away.
"Lorena" features interviews with most of the major players in the case, including both Bobbitts. Rofé doesn't directly confront John Wayne often but certainly edits his film in such a way that makes him look like an absolute monster. It's one of the most damning portraits of a human being in a documentary in which that person is also interviewed that I've ever seen.
It's perhaps a strange takeaway for such a sad documentary, but I did end up thinking after watching Lorena that were the same thing to happen today, we would do better for her. And any optimism these days feels like a gift, so thank you, Lorena.
Lorena is compelling not because it's a well-done look at a wild and notorious true-crime case. It's compelling because, in a way, watching it involves an examination of our past as well as our present.
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