Bama Rush documentary trailer still of a celebratory crowd of women in a sorority.

Why Did ‘Bama Rush’ Gloss Over Racism To Delve Into the Director’s Backstory?!

I am a sucker for a good documentary, one that clearly explains why it’s being made and goes into the nuances of its subject matter. Bama Rush on HBO Max, unfortunately, is not that kind of documentary, which is a shame because the subject matter the movie was supposed to cover is fascinating. Cast your mind back to August 2021, when #BamaRush went viral on TikTok, introducing the world to the high-stakes, high-pressure world of sorority “rushing” at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

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Simultaneously, it seemed like the rest of the world discovered a hyper-specific, fascinating subculture of Alabama sororities and became riveted. People picked their favorite pledges, followed their TikToks religiously (which typically featured what outfit they were going to wear that day), and cheered them on as they went through the rush process, which culminated on “bid day,” when they would find out what sorority wanted them to join. Here are two such videos from #BamaRush 2022:

Since #BamaRush was a phenom seemingly out of nowhere, of a subculture I knew nothing about, I was excited when Max released the documentary Bama Rush last month, which promised to dive into the world of Rushing at the University of Alabama. The keyword is promise, because what the documentary purported to be about and what it ended up actually being about were very different. Some spoilers below, fair warning.

See, the director, Rachel Fleit, ended up in a bind, because multiple subjects who were rushing the 2022 season ended up dropping out of the movie—one because she had a falling out with another subject and subsequently decided to not rush and stopped filming; another who also dropped out of the rush process after deciding joining a sorority was not for her; and finally, the last dropped out because the University itself was unhappy with the idea of a documentary filming on campus. Why? There was a rumor that the movie was secretly mic-ing pledges so they could film in sorority houses unbeknownst to everyone else, so she dropped out when it became clear that involvement with the movie might hurt her chances of joining a sorority. That left just one subject, in the end, to follow all the way to bid day.

Here’s where Bama Rush really falls apart, though: The documentary did have access to extremely interesting people who understand the Panhellenic system at the University of Alabama, but inexplicably decided to focus on the director’s alopecia as a framing and narrative device, rather than lean more heavily into people who had anything to do with the subject matter the movie was supposed to be about.

It was a wild choice, out of left field, that left many, myself included, baffled at best, and irritated that the director inserted herself so heavily into a film that wasn’t supposed to be about her. Just look at this Tweet:

At one point in the film, Fleit interviews a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald about “the Machine,” which is a secret shadow organization that operates behind the scenes at the University, per Alabama.com:

The doc shifts gears to focus on the Machine, otherwise known as Theta Nu Epsilon, a secretive and select coalition of traditionally white fraternities and sororities designed to influence campus politics at the University of Alabama.

Garrett, an Alabama SGA associate justice, says the Machine is the Greek system. “They control everything on this campus,” he says. “So if there’s an election, the Machine is rigging it. If there’s a homecoming queen, it’s the Machine candidate.”

Archibald describes the Machine in the documentary, per the above source:

“The Machine systematically made sure that a minority group on campus of elite people who got special treatment, lived in special homes, who came from the most affluent and powerful families got an advantage on everyone else,” he said. “It’s a way better teacher of how to do nefarious things for power than you could ever get in a political science class. And I think it’s a threat to people’s hopes and dreams that they may not be able to fit into the crowd and maybe the tax bracket they want to fit into. I think the danger is not belonging — it’s not being one of the chosen people.”

That is objectively fascinating, yet the documentary barely goes into it. To add even more baffling choices, Fleit also interviews one of the few Homecoming Queens to ever be elected outside of the Machine’s influence, Deidra Chestang Lane. Lane belonged to a Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in the ’80s at The University of Alabama. Along with her sorority sisters, she once drove past a burning cross on the lawn of a fraternity house. Per Alabama.com:

She recalls seeing a “smoldering cross” at a fraternity party on campus during the 1980s. “We were terrified, and anger crept in later after we got beyond the shock and dismay of the entire situation,” she says. “I grew up in Alabama, so hearing that crosses were being burned is something that I grew up hearing about, but I never personally seen a cross being burned, and once you see that, you can’t unsee it. And it sticks with you for a lifetime.”

That incident is surely only the tip of the issues of racism that could have been illuminated, but it’s only mentioned in passing, and never explored further, and yet it feels like at least a quarter of the movie is spent with Fleit talking about her alopecia: Why she used to wear a wig but doesn’t anymore, and how she was forced to wear a wig again once the university became paranoid about her filming the Rush process because she was too easily identifiable without one. Riveting stuff, right?

Sometimes, she would insert herself into the conversation off-camera, which was especially irritating because it meant she wasn’t miced up, so all you can hear is soft mumbling, with the on-camera person reacting and speaking back to her. Just baffling decisions on her part, time and time again.

I’m not saying Fleit’s story isn’t interesting. Were this a documentary about alopecia and how it affects your view of yourself, or how society treats you at large, I would welcome these types of asides—with proper audio, of course. However, this was supposed to be a movie about the Rush process at the University of Alabama. Fleit’s alopecia had nothing to do with anything, even when she tried to use it (poorly) as a framing device for rushing.

What sends you fully into “WTF” territory is that there are interesting stories she’s just not mining, like the racism, and how the Machine operates and is allowed to continue to operate to this day in concurrence with the fraternities and sororities that participate in it. That is fascinating and doesn’t rely on her Rush subject’s participation who kept dropping out. Only a white person would listen to Lane’s harrowing story of cross burning on a fraternity lawn and think to themselves, “The real story here is my alopecia. This is what people want in the movie.”

Hell, it would even be more interesting to dive into the rush consultant world, where would-be sorority members pay other people to tell them how to be successful in the rush process, which two of the pledges employ in the documentary. That’s fascinating! How much do they charge? How busy are they throughout the year? How far in advance do you need to plan? What is their success rate?! So many questions to ask, and yet none are. Yet, I know exactly when Fleit decided to stop using her wig in college. Why do I know that from watching a documentary called Bama Rush?!

What’s most frustrating about the whole thing is that Bama Rush feels like a missed opportunity. I went into it wanting to know everything about the rush process at the school because I find it riveting, and after watching the film, I still don’t know that much about it. This is a subject begging for a deep dive: on its racist history, how sororities currently operate, how hard the process is to get into them, and if in the end, rushing is even worth it to the person. Hopefully one day we’ll get that, but for now, Bama Rush will remain an aggravating story of what could have been.

(featured image: Max)


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Author
Kate Hudson
Kate Hudson (no, not that one) has been writing about pop culture and reality TV in particular for six years, and is a Contributing Writer at The Mary Sue. With a deep and unwavering love of Twilight and Con Air, she absolutely understands her taste in pop culture is both wonderful and terrible at the same time. She is the co-host of the popular Bravo trivia podcast Bravo Replay, and her favorite Bravolebrity is Kate Chastain, and not because they have the same first name, but it helps.