There is an iconic scene inÂ Animal House, arguably the most legendary portrayal of Greek life in cinema, where John Belushi’s character attempts to spy on women in a sorority house by putting up a ladder and peeking in a window. Naturally, the gals are having a pillow fight in their underwear. Bluto hops his ladder over to the next window, where Mandy Pepperidge is undressing. As she is about to remove her panties, Belushi leans backwards in excitement, and falls backwards, still clutching the ladder, which lands on top of him.Â
Belushiâs experience is emblematic ofÂ Bama Rush, a new documentary premiering today on Max (formerly HBO Max),Â in a couple of ways. We are fascinated about what happens inside sorority houses, and it is really hard to find out what happens inside sorority houses. This challenge presents a dilemma for Rachel Fleet, the director of this documentary. Her solution is unusual, but ultimately leaves the viewer a little bit disappointed.
This documentary purports to give us a peek behind the scenes of the process of sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama. The hook for the documentary is the explosive popularity of #BamaRush Tiktoks in 2021, but for the most part these TikToks are by potential new members (PNMs), not members of a sorority.Â
As a disclaimer, the author of this piece is a product of the Greek system, though my own experience as a member of the nerd/stoner/mountain bike fraternity at Washington University, Saint Louis has very little experience to sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama. I currently teach at Clemson University, where some of my best students â including two former Decider staffers â have been sorority members. These experiences do not give me any real inside information, but they do give me a perspective that makes me uneasy with the mixture of scorn and fascination the general public seems to have for sororities and the women in them.Â
This perspective suggests that is something a little bit off about the whole enterprise of this documentary. If the premise of your documentary is to show how a group of people take something too seriously, itâs strange to have the documentary itself take itself too seriously â at times, Bama Rush is shot and scored with the ominous vibes of a Murdaugh Murders documentary. More important, at the end of the day, the documentary focuses more on individuals trying to join these powerful institutions than on the institutions themselves. This focus is a result of the limited access the makers ofÂ Bama RushÂ have to the actual sororities. Early in the documentary, we see a sorority member ask the documentary crew not to film on their property, and that moment sets the tone for what follows. There is a lot of B-roll footage of groups of rushees walking from house to house, and a lot of footage from rusheesâ TikToks. By contrast, there are only a handful of active sorority members whom we see on camera, and some of those appear to be living outside of their sorority house, and may well be more or less done with Greek life, as happens sometimes with seniors.Â
The challenge the makers of Bama Rush face is that they are attempting to document a subject where a lot of the interest comes from the secrecy that surrounds it. We just donât get to see much of the rush, because both the rush parties and the deliberations are in sorority houses that are in no hurry to give access to documentarians. Instead, the film focuses on a handful of young women preparing to go through rush. The scenes of these young women working with their rush consultants are some of the most compelling moments in this documentary, but we also get a lot of Real Housewives-style content about friendship and rifts among the PNMs. (A rush consultant is someone you can hire to counsel you about going through rush, in hopes of getting a bid to a better sorority.) In the context of young women paying thousands of dollars for advice on what shoes to wear,Â Â Bama Rush doesÂ well to include some perspective from Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd, whose bookÂ Southern BeautyÂ puts sorority rush in the context of other ritualized performances of femininity.Â
Near the end of the documentary, this secrecy does generate some interesting narrative with current sorority members expressing their concern about the rumors about this documentary, mostly in the form of social media posts warning HBO and the rumored PNM moles not to (mess) with the process. The sisters are not happy. There are rumors that HBO is providing some PNMs with hidden microphones, moving one fraternity house mom to say âYou donât want to go up against the University of Alabama.â Some entrepreneurial sort printed up shirts that said âf*ck your documentaryâ (the asterisk is on the actual shirt).
Bama RushÂ takes a turn for the meta when the filmmaker, Rachel Fleet, appears on camera in her own documentary, wearing one of the shirts that says âf*ck your documentary.â Some of the most poignant moments in the film are when the PNMs talk about wanting to find connection and acceptance through sorority life. We learn that Fleet has alopecia, a condition that causes complete baldness. Fleet tells us that this condition made her feel ostracized in ways that made her identify with the PNMsâ search for connection. As a result, the last chunk of the documentary is more about the filmmakerâs struggle to get the film made than it is about sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama. For fans of documentaries, itâs a compelling story. For people who want a documentary that captures the true essence of sorority life, I suggest sticking withÂ Legally Blonde.Â
Jonathan Beecher Field was born in New England, educated in the Midwest, and teaches in the South. He Tweets professionally asÂ @ThatJBF, and unprofessionally asÂ @TheGurglingCod. He also sometimes writes forÂ AvidlyÂ andÂ Common-Place.