When Netflix premiered The Most Hated Woman In America, all about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists — you can read my review here — there were a couple of people whose reactions I really wanted to hear.
Obviously, the main characters in the story are no longer with us. But what about the current President of American Atheists?
David Silverman, who is now in the position O’Hair once held, spoke with a UK-based website about O’Hair, but it was before he had a chance to see the movie. He also couldn’t give any personal stories about her since they never met — he first got involved with the organization in 1996, when O’Hair and her family members were still missing. So while he could speak about her legacy, he couldn’t necessarily add anything unique about her life that only he knew.
The other person I wanted to hear from was William J. Murray, O’Hair’s son who became famous for being a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that removed mandatory Christian prayers from public schools. He eventually grew away from her, became a conservative Christian who now chairs the Religious Freedom Coalition, and rarely gives any comments on his family. (In the film, O’Hair reacts to that “betrayal” by saying Bill “sold out to the highest bidder.”)
What did he make of his portrayal? The film doesn’t really depict the adult version of him in a positive light. At one point, after he’s told his family members have disappeared, he purposely doesn’t contact the police about it.
My own attempt to reach him on Friday went nowhere — more on that in a moment — but he has since spoken with conservative website WND, telling them the film gets quite a bit wrong.
“Overall, the fictional and factual overlapped in ‘Most Hated Woman in America’ to a degree that moved the movie into the questionable category,” Murray told WND.
“This was clearly what Hollywood refers to as a ‘Google Movie,’ that is, a docudrama in which the total research upon which it is based is publicly available with Google searches with no true research or interviews of participants. There are no references in the credit roll to books, magazine or newspaper articles.”
That may be true… though that description probably applies to a lot of 90-minute films “based on a true story.” Not every aspect of O’Hair’s life was going to be included, some aspects were going to be fictionalized, and this was by no means an extensive look at everything she did. So Murray’s complaint that the movie didn’t mention his mother’s “affiliation with the Communist Party” seems irrelevant. It wouldn’t have advanced the story any more (and it’s not like the movie made O’Hair out to be some sort of hero).
Murray also thought the portrayal of his half-brother Jon Garth was unfair:
“The depiction of my brother Garth as rather stupid saddened me,” Murray said. “He was not a stupid man, just a man who had been controlled in a cult-like situation for most of his life, as was my daughter Robin. He was well educated and intelligent, but convinced by his mother that she was the most intelligent human who had ever walked the Earth — the keeper of all knowledge.”
Again, it’s not surprising to hear that criticism from someone who has distanced himself as much as humanly possibly from his mother.
Murray finally responded to me yesterday and offered a broader criticism of the film. He also noted that the movie got his own role in the saga wrong. He’s seen in the film as contacting the police a long time after his family disappeared, even though, we’re told, only family members could file police reports. That’s not true, he said.
There is not much to say about the movie itself. The timeline is so messed up that aspect can’t even be commented on. The compression of events in the last ten minutes was flabbergasting. The movie just was not well made … I reported her missing one year after the disappearance because no one in her atheist group would do it. (With only news reports to go on and not being present I should not have been involved.) Those close to her were busy taking over her home and business. Her house was moved into before she was even murdered. AND NO … You do not have to be a relative to report someone missing, even a neighbor can do that. But … It was a low budget flick for Netflix release. Forget about the big screen. As B movies go … what can I say?
He also shared with me his frustrations about the portrayal of Garth, similar to what he told WND.
As I said before, I don’t think it’s the fault of the filmmakers for not including certain details about O’Hair’s life. We should also expect artistic license to be used in the story and characters.
But it’s important to recognize that the only immediate family member who’s still alive — and plays a hugely important role in O’Hair’s life — says there’s a lot left out and some of the details that were included do him a disservice.
(Screenshot via YouTube)