So, this is like the most lukewarm hot take ever because the LMCC took over my life, and also the actual subject, but let’s do this thing. 2 weeks ago I was browsing Tumblr and came across this linked article:
So, some context. Most people who lived at least in the West and enjoyed late night tv probably remember the name Rob Ford. Rob Ford was the Mayor of Toronto, Canada’s most populated city, from 2010-2014. If you’re not likely from Ontario, you remember Rob Ford for this:
Or some variation on “Rob Ford, Crack Smoking Mayor.” I’d like to mention the elephant in the room right off the bat: Ford died in 2016 after a short battle with an aggressive cancer at the age of 46. So, while I’m not going to be overly complementary about his term as mayor here (at best subpar, at worst incompetent), I would like to say I am sorry for his family and their loss, and I never wished or would wish him any ill will personally. And while his death doesn’t excuse his behaviour or his scandal as mayor, it does make this subject a little thornier to discuss, so I’m going to aim for respect whenever possible (though I’m very much hoping that Doug Ford, his even worse brother does not get elected to be Ontario’s premiere this summer).
But yes, in the early 2010’s Toronto scored a major scandal when the now defunct Gawker posted, trying to crowd fund to pay $100 thousand dollars for a video of Rob Ford, then the mayor of Toronto, smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers and gang members. The news obviously took off with the late night talk show crowd, and Ford’s behaviour only fuelled the flames, as he managed to answer every single question thrown at him in the worst way possible.
I miss Jon Stewart.
But yes, Canada – known world wide for being polite and cold and really boring – finally had a real political scandal, and a juicy one at that. But the scandal, like most do, burned itself out rather quickly: the video surfaced in a police raid (turns out Ford had managed to smoke crack with drug dealers under constant surveillance by the police for gang activity, who knew), Ford was mostly stripped of his political power, lost his re-election and then, as mentioned, sadly lost his battle to cancer. And again, if you’re not from Ontario, that, if that, is probably all you know about Rob Ford. And so, when faced with the headline above, or one such as this:
You were probably most likely to react like this:
And honestly, I…disagree? But I’ll get to that in a minute, I promise.
Now, the obvious discourse on Tumblr was the implication that Robyn Doolittle, the female reporter who wrote Crazy Town, the book on the Ford family and scandal and was one of the lead reporter’s at the Toronto Star on the Rob Ford affair, had been recast as a man in the upcoming Rob Ford movie Run This Town. This was a pretty damning accusation of sexism if it had been true, and Doolittle herself clearly was a little ticked off.
So Ben Platt (of the Dear Evan Hansen fame), the man cast in the movie in the supposed role, was quick to clarify that:
“I play a totally fictionalized character, an entitled, incapable entry-level reporter (my boss is played by Jennifer Ehle) at a fictional competing newspaper. The film alludes to the successful reporting from the Toronto Star.
To reiterate, the film is a completely fictional drama with several storylines exploring the millennial generation & their involvement in politics & journalism, the Rob Ford scandal serves as the platform.”
And ok, so that’s not that bad I suppose, at least they haven’t turned the accomplishments of a female reporter into a male but…why? I seriously don’t get this movie decision.
Because we don’t need a movie telling the “Rob Ford, crack smoking mayor of Toronto” story. And let’s be honest, that’s pretty clearly what this movie is going to be. As I’ve said, that’s the only part of the Rob Ford affair that the public knows enough of to use as a “platform” for a story like this. And furthermore, to say it’s “completely fictional,” is a bit of a cheat, because the movie is clearly banking on drawing in people who want the “Rob Ford crack story” and wouldn’t go see a movie about some fictional politician with a similar scandal.
But that wouldn’t really be worth making this bizarre attempt at a think piece on it’s own. I mean, historical fiction sometimes makes for great movies (American Hustle, as a recent example). So, Hollywood is going to make a trashy Rob Ford movie and also a hot take on those millennial and their internet or whatever. What else could you do with the Rob Ford story?
You could make a Rob Ford movie that had real impact and really looked at politics today.
No really, hear me out. Because the Rob Ford story isn’t just “the crack smoking mayor” that made the talk shows for a couple months. The Rob Ford story is one that is honestly so relevant to today’s politics it’s crazy. And if you don’t believe me, let me tell you a story about Rob Ford, and you stop me if it sounds like someone you know.
Rob Ford was man who grew up rich, the family money made by a strict authoritarian father who was self made millionaire. He was a loud, outspoken conservative who never played by the rules and said racist and homophobic and sexist things that would have sunk other politicians (including, “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably” and “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines.” He thought that last one was a compliment by the way). He appealed to voters on the platform of cutting waste and “stopping the gravy train,” and decreasing government spending. He won his election by building a solid base of mid class suburbanites who he rallied against the “liberal elites of the city,” all the while being a hereditary millionaire. He had no idea how to actually run a city, was in favour of cutting social programs and the arts, and very rarely spent time in the office, instead preferring to leave often to coach high school football. He was a populist conservative and a bully, who publicly decried things that in person he hypocritically had as personal vices.
Rob Ford was the proto Donald Trump, and his entire political rise and fall could not have been a more perfect metaphor for Trump’s presidency if it had been written that way.
But perhaps more importantly, in Doolittle’s great book, she makes it clear that The Ford Family (who wanted to be thought of as the Canadian Kennedy’s) were absolutely out to paint The Toronto Star (who was mostly reporting on him and for whom she worked for) as “out to get him.” Donald Trump might not have – as he seems to think – created the term fake news – if anything he just inherited it from the Ford brothers – but he’s brought it into the mainstream in a way it wasn’t before, and that’s affected the whole way we consume and view media.
Rob and Doug Ford both played the fake news card, before and throughout the scandal: they called The Star “compulsive liars,” made up a story that a reporter of their’s had been sneaking and looking over his personal fence at his home (the reporter was on the adjacent land, trying to figure out why Ford wanted to buy it, and Ford later admitted he made up the trespassing and invasion of privacy bits), and so much more. It got to the point that The Star had to go before a regulatory board and defend their actions in reporting on the “Crack video” when they had seen but didn’t have the video to publish, because a supporter of Ford’s had brought a claim up against them. The council ruled in their favour, stating that reporting has long been a profession of reporters seeing something and reporting on it, without needing the burden of video proof to do so, but it brought up a landmark shift in how we consider media and media outlets today.
In this age of the 24 hour news cycle and everyone having cellphones and cameras, we have become a society of “if I didn’t see it with my own two eyes then it didn’t happen.” The “mainstream media” has become a dirty phrase, and accusations of Fake News!!! run rampant. We don’t consume media the way we did before, and we don’t trust reporters the way we did before, and given the…wild west of so called “citizen journalism” that has cropped up as the alternative, that absolutely will affect us as a society.
As such, the fact that The Star stood up to those accusations, that they followed this story throughout being called liars and fakes is a story that is worth telling. We need more stories about honest modern journalism that celebrate the fifth estate as the important part of our society that it is. We need good reporting to stay alive: to comment on when society is fractured and wrong and to shine a light on things that need to be changed, or illuminate things that are going well. We don’t more news networks falling over themselves to talk about how they really did cover all the mass shootings Trump decided they didn’t, or hiring guests for shouting matches because we’ve got 24 hours to fill, darn it, and entertainment sells. People might have found Aaron Sorkin’s recent HBO drama The Newsroom a little bit preachy, but I freaking loved it, as the scathing hate-love letter to modern journalism that it was.
So why not, if you’re going to make a Rob Ford movie, make a Rob Ford movie?
Tell the story of the Ford family; the brothers and their complicated legacy with their father (himself a local politician) and their rise and fall from grace. Tell the “urban vs rural voters” story that is so incredibly topical now in modern politics, and tell the story of journalists that followed a story even despite being called “fake news” and “bullies.” Tell more than just the “crack scandal” (with an added oh those millennials take) and actually make a movie with a commentary on western politics today.
And if you do…cast Robyn Doolittle as a woman. Because she is, and that deserves to be told as well.