Framing Britney Spears director Samantha Stark reacts to pop star's testimony: 'This felt so powerful'
Britney Spears made one of the most astonishing appearances of her illustrious career this week — in court.
The pop icon, who has been living under a legal conservatorship since 2008, delivered devastating testimony at the latest hearing (which she attended remotely) in her ongoing case, alleging a long list of abuses she has suffered under the guardianship and pleading with Los Angeles Superior Court judge Brenda Penny for the arrangement to be terminated.
The case's legal proceedings have largely been sealed up to this point — in part due to the efforts of Spears' father and main conservator, Jamie Spears — but Wednesday's hearing was open, its audio available to livestream. In real time, Spears' harrowing account of her situation made headlines, trended across social media, and prompted messages of support from fans and celebrities (some of whom she used to know). There hasn't been such a spotlight on Spears' conservatorship since it was first established 13 years ago, following her public breakdown, but national attention to the case has built to a fever pitch in recent months, ever since the February release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears.
"For me, it's such a strange experience," the film's director, New York Times journalist Samantha Stark, tells EW of listening to Spears' testimony. "I've spent, now, a year kind of breathing Britney Spears without ever meeting her or knowing her. Hearing her actually speak and say all this felt so powerful, because now we can't deny what came out of her mouth or how she feels. And it's been a year of struggling with wondering how she feels."
The latest installment in FX's series of standalone docs The New York Times Presents, Stark's film traces the history of Spears' brilliant career — from her Mickey Mouse Club days to her TRL domination to her troubled rebellion and finally the conservatorship — paying careful attention to the cultural context in which it happened and the media treatment she received throughout, which altered the story of her life just as much as it disseminated it.
Since the documentary aired, Stark and her New York Times colleagues have continued to report on the developing story of the conservatorship, and they published an investigation the day before Spears' hearing that shed new light on the situation. Confidential court documents obtained by the Times revealed that since at least 2014, Spears has repeatedly expressed a wish that not only her father be removed from his position of power, but that the conservatorship be terminated altogether.
"It was really striking to me how so much of what she said in the court [on Wednesday] was echoed in our story," Stark says. "I think it was very shocking for an audience, but we had heard [many of Spears' complaints] echoed in the transcript we read of when she went in and spoke to that same judge two years ago and told her basically the same thing." (Early in her testimony Wednesday, Spears told the judge, "I don't think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time.")
While much of the public reaction to the hearing had to do with the details of Spears' testimony — her conservators' refusal to let her remove her IUD and have a child among the most headline-grabbing items — Stark had heard most of it before, and was stuck on something else in the aftermath of the star's virtual court appearance. "The thing that surprised me the most was that no one acknowledged these allegations of abuse or said that the next step would be looking into them," she says. "It points out clear issues with the conservatorship system, because why is there no process in place that would trigger whatever happens next, after something as extraordinary and outrageous as what happened in the court [on Wednesday] happened?"
Spears has repeatedly expressed fear of punishment for speaking out, citing being forced into a mental health facility, being administered lithium (which she had never taken before), and being prevented from seeing her children and boyfriend after standing up for herself in the past. "She said all of that, and she left in the exact same position she started," Stark says. "Where are the safeguards for retaliation? If someone says, 'I get punished when I speak up for myself,' why wasn't there an immediate action plan put into place to make sure Britney didn't get retaliated against? And what does that mean for all the other people who are in conservatorships?"
In theory, one likely person to take some type of action next might be Spears' attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III. His role in the situation is as hazily complicated as much of the rest of the case's convoluted history, however. As Framing Britney Spears explains, after the singer was taken into an involuntary psychiatric hold in early 2008, she tried to hire a lawyer to represent her, but the court deemed her mentally incapable of retaining her own counsel and assigned a court-appointed attorney, Ingham.
"Sam Ingham was assigned to be her attorney on Feb. 1, 2008, which was the same day that her father petitioned to become her conservator, so he was assigned her attorney before there was even a question of whether she could choose her own," says Stark, who co-wrote a New York Times report about Ingham that was published soon after her conversation with EW. "The question is, why was he assigned the same day, before anyone deemed her capable or not, or asked her if she had hired a lawyer she wanted?"
The New York Times story about Ingham reports that he makes $475 per hour representing Spears, totaling almost $3 million since 2008. "All of this lawyer stuff is set up in a way that appears like there could be a lot of conflict of interest, particularly in how they get paid," Stark says. "They get paid if the person remains under the conservatorship."
In her testimony Wednesday, Spears admitted, "I didn't know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended. I'm sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn't know that."
Stark reacts: "I think the biggest question about Sam Ingham is why she didn't know that, if there's a lawyer who's assigned to help her through this legal system with doing what she wants." He can't claim ignorance of her desire that the conservatorship be terminated; the Times report from earlier in the week reveals that Spears has clearly expressed that wish for years.
Spears asked the judge Wednesday to be allowed to finally hire her own lawyer, and Ingham said in court that he would comply if asked to step aside; once again, however, "there wasn't an action plan put in place for that," Stark says. "I know the judge said she was open to having someone file a petition to change the lawyers, but it's unclear who would file it and how." Ingham is, at present, still Spears' attorney.
In our conversation, Stark repeatedly comes back to the lack of an action plan — for basically anything. Another hearing has been set for July 14, but it's unclear whether any of the wishes expressed or abuses alleged in Spears' testimony will be addressed there, especially considering the revelation that she's been saying these things for years. This time, however, the world heard her. "Hopefully it will [make a difference], but nothing has happened yet," Stark says, cautious. "Public and journalists, we're supposed to hold our courts accountable."
The media has a short attention span, but one group will never take its eyes off the twin prizes of Spears' emancipation and broader probate court reform. The #FreeBritney movement, which launched in 2019, has grown exponentially in the months since the release of Framing Britney Spears, which consciously reframed not only the pop icon herself, but also this particular contingent of activist-fans.
"One of the things our documentary did was, we took a step back and really made a huge effort to come at the whole story without prejudgments or prejudices from past media coverage," Stark says. "A lot of people, it's kind of ingrained in their heads that Britney went crazy or that the [#FreeBritney] fans are conspiracy theorists, because they've heard it so much. We really wanted to step back and interrogate every single thing. And so when we were looking at a lot of the things the fans were saying, we realized they were bringing up legitimate concerns about the conservatorship system."
The #FreeBritney movement was vindicated this week, when Spears herself verbally detailed alleged abuses about which the group has been trying to spread awareness for so long. Stark joined the organization's advocates at their rally outside the L.A. courthouse before heading into the building to hear Spears' testimony in Judge Penny's courtroom — a moment that she, like many who listened, will likely never forget.
"Usually, I take furious notes when I'm in the courtroom and try to write down everything the person says. But I found myself just being like, I need to savor this moment, because it's been so long, for me, not being able to [hear her] but thinking about her day and night with our reporting," Stark recalls. "So at certain points, I put my pen down just so I could really listen to her and absorb her — speaking the way she wanted."
- Britney Spears speaks in court: 'I just want my life back'
- Framing Britney Spears unravels a heartbreaking pop mystery
- The #FreeBritney movement finds vindication in Britney Spears' hearing: 'We just witnessed history'
- Inside the virtual #FreeBritney rally: 'This is not just a movement, this is a love story'
- Britney Spears to address court this week: Where her conservatorship stands