Critics everywhere have hailed Bully as an important, engaging documentary. EW’s Owen Gleiberman calls it “sensitive and eye-opening”; the film has also earned a near-perfect 93 percent “Fresh” rating from the reviews aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes. But in an article posted late last week, Slate‘s Emily Bazelon alleged that some crucial parts of Bully are “utterly one-sided” and “factually questionable.” Her piece focused on Tyler Long, one of the doc’s featured subjects; when he was just 17, Long took his own life, apparently because he was bullied by his classmates.
But according to Bazelon, that isn’t the whole story. She wrote that Tyler also suffered from ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome; additionally, his girlfriend broke up with him a few weeks before his suicide. It seems likely that these factors contributed to Tyler’s decision to commit suicide, Bazelon wrote. She asserted that by not mentioning them — and by possibly exaggerating the treatment Tyler received in school — director Lee Hirsch and producer Cynthia Lowen oversimplified and distorted the facts to create a smoother narrative.
Lowen responded to the allegations with an exclusive statement to EW:
Due to its glaring inaccuracies, misinformation and lack of journalistic integrity — the filmmakers of Bully would like to respond to Emily Bazelon’s “The Problem with Bully.”
We are deeply disappointed by the author’s neglect to gain a clear picture of Tyler’s bullying in the Murray County School District, which is currently under investigation by the United States Department of Justice regarding allegations of ongoing bullying and harassment.
Bazelon suggests that Tyler was NOT bullied in the days, weeks and months before his death. This is factually incorrect. There are literally hundreds of bullying events and incidents that have been testified to under oath by his fellow students. Multiple students testified he was bullied on a “daily basis,” and the pleadings reflect constant bullying his junior year, including the very day he killed himself.
Bazelon erroneously cites Tyler’s prior health history and its significance to the case: he was never diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, and Asperger Syndrome is not a recognized risk factor for suicide.
That Tyler was on the autism spectrum is never something the filmmakers have hidden, it is something we have discussed in many interviews and post-viewing Q&A’s. The fact that Tyler was on the spectrum does not reduce the school system’s responsibility to provide a safe learning environment. As filmmakers we felt that was the bottom line. For this very reason, we chose not to introduce his autism in the film.
The filmmakers are dismayed by Bazelon’s failure to reach out to either the Long family or their legal counsel, so that they may have had the opportunity to address the Murray County School District’s assertions.
When presented with Lowen’s statement, Slate deputy editor Julia Turner responded with one of her own:
Emily Bazelon’s central concern about Bully, expressed in her review for Slate, is that the movie presents a one-sided and incomplete version of the events leading up to the suicide of Tyler Long. The movie includes no mention of the mental health issues Tyler faced, and it fails to note that the school district disputes the Long family’s account of the causal role bullying played his death. The school district’s legal papers tell us that Tyler was diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s when he was in sixth grade, and while the family’s response brief objects to the bipolar diagnosis as “immaterial,” it does not factually challenge it. Perhaps more important for this conversation, no one disputes that Tyler was on the autism spectrum, and considerable research links Asperger’s and autism to an elevated risk of suicide. (More helpful information on that here.)
Emily has covered bullying for Slate for a few years now. Her reporting has taught her how complicated the issues around it can be, especially in the tragic cases when a student takes his or her own life. And her interviews with suicide prevention experts have taught her how important it is to avoid oversimplifying the facts, which can make suicide look romantic or appealing, especially to teen viewers. Emily’s review was not intended to endorse the school district’s view; merely to point out that an alternative viewpoint exists, and that the movie had a responsibility to address it.
Bully is currently showing in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles; TWC plans to expand that number to up to 150 theaters in the next few weeks.