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‘Bad Press’ Is A Riveting And Necessary Doc – Sundance 2023 Review

by Rendy Jones

Freedom of the press is always an uphill battle to climb. In a post-Trump world riddled with misinformation and corrupt administrative forces attempting to silence journalists dedicated to reporting the truth, it’s become challenging to maintain the now loose definition of freedom of speech. In outside countries, a simply exposed ocean has the power to cost a journalist their job, if not worse, life. Thankfully, the U.S. has the first amendment, freedom of speech, to protect journalists. If you’re an Indigenous journalist living in America operating under Tribal Laws, that’s sadly not the case. In the urgent documentary Bad Press, filmmakers Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler chronicle the fight Muscogee journalists face against their conservative Indigenous nation’s government from letting them express their rights to be heard.

Bad Press - Sundance
(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Bad Press wastes no time educating its audience on the separation of laws between American and Tribal. Whereas America prides itself on freedom of speech, Tribal laws are significantly different. Within the 574 tribal states across the nation, only five tribes have laws to protect the press. With a ratio as bad as that, one can only imagine how actively frustrated and vulnerable writers of Indigenous-based outlets are regarding the content restrictions governments set them.

Set in the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, the film chronicles the decade-spanning efforts of Angel Ellis as she constantly fights against her tribal government to protect her independent outlet company Mvskoke Media from oversight and censorship from public officials. Throughout the scandals, sexual harassment, and corruption that go about the powers that be above them, especially stemmed from suspicious Chief leaders, whenever Ellis and her time report ongoing news in their community, they’re often pushed back. Many journalists are either fired or quit due to frustrating factors such as non-journalistic people getting selected as secretaries but acting as wardens for their work. Nevertheless, Ellis pours her dedication to bringing justice to her outlet and others within her nation.

As an American who had no idea about the separation of laws between Federal and Tribal, Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s feature heavily exposes the scumminess of government officials wanting to protect their power and how by controlling the press, protect their own hinds. Ellis’ navigation exemplifies the importance and harm of the lack of freedom of the press. As it follows her in real time trying to do her job, surviving one election to another, the more it is executed as a strong underdog piece. In a Nation where straight-up criminals are elected to high powers, the wavering dread of her job is always in the aura. One criminal chief after another fills the scene; some are characters straight out of a crime comedy flick. It’s hard to take some of the figures seriously, but the power they behold is maddening, especially when their administration tries to block access and censor the media’s reporting. To see this is what the Muscogee journalist has to face adds urgency, and you wholeheartedly root for Ellis to win. 

Bad Press
(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

As Ellis’s fight progresses heightens, the attention deviates to an important Chief election that can hopefully work in her favour. As it constantly illuminates the shady practices within the Indigenous political system, it becomes as stressful as a hard-hitting thriller that drops your jaw when it gets to the election. Ballot miscounts constitute a significant problem as Mvskoke Media’s accessibility to the results is switched on a dime by the political officials giving them access. The more time spent with Mvskoke’s team, the more infuriated the viewer becomes with the Tribal laws they have to bend over backwards. That said, given the film’s span between the 2010s, when we saw constant attacks on American journalism in real-time, Bad Press holds a harrowing mirror to our society. The lack of accountability given to high powers similarly reflects what we’ve been through within the past few years. Ellis’s unrelenting efforts in the midst of factors she has to fight through deliver a strong tribute to the importance of democracy for the press. 

Undoubtedly, Bad Press is one of the most vital docs to come out of this year’s Sundance. It’s a riveting, thrilling, and sometimes depressing commentary on why the press needs protection across all the nations in America, Tribal and federal. Showcasing the oppression reporters face operating within a corrupt system that tries to report the truth, Bad Press is a powerful tribute to journalistic democracy which still needs to be protected to this very day.

Bad Press premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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