In “Bad Press,” a journalist enters the National Council Chamber to advocate for a “free press” bill and argue in favor of it, risking retaliation from those who oppose it and even being arrested. The power of fantastic editing brings the tense, nail-biting scene to life. But here’s the thing: it’s all real, shot in real-time.

The Sundance-bound documentary, directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, chronicles the journey of Oklahoma-based media company Mvskoke Media, from being repealed from free journalism by an oppressive government to emerging as a constitutionally protected organization by the citizens, with the fundamental right of being free press. Angel Ellis, a Mvskoke Media journalist (and current director), leads the fight.

Mvskoke Media, for the uninitiated, is an organization that primarily covers the events of Muscogee Creek, a self-governed Native American tribal nation in the state of Oklahoma.
The Muscogee government, led by Chief James Floyd, crippled Mvskoke Media in 2018 by removing their right to free journalism due to the courageous media organization’s exposure of their shady activities. But journalist Angel Ellis was not one to let things like that slide, and she continued to fight against the repeal until she finally succeeded in flipping it over.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

The documentary’s best aspect is that the director duo presents it in a very cinematic style, which makes the proceedings very engaging. This was especially difficult because every scene we see is real footage, most of which was shot when Mvskoke Media was banned and under the leadership of the same government they were fighting against.

Having Ellis as the central character and making her the “unofficial” hero of this story benefits the narrative. What helps even more, is the obvious availability of proper villains.
The main antagonist is Floyd’s government’s problematic regime, but the documentary does an excellent job of highlighting the individuals. Lucian Tiger III, a councilman who eventually runs for the chief position in the election, avoids a very plausible sexual assault allegation while continuing to support a media controlled by the government.

The narrative focuses on the good people to highlight the wrongdoings of people like Tiger III and James Floyd. Another councilman, Mark Randolph, becomes the driving force behind the “free press” bill and does everything he can to support Ellis. David Hill, the current Muscogee Creek chief, is a working-class man who supports press freedom.

Bad Press (2023) 'Sundance' Review
A still from Bad Press by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ellis’s colleague Jerrard Moore tirelessly supports her and becomes an essential supporting hero of this tale. And given Landsberry-Baker, the director herself, used to be an employee of Mvskoke Media, we can clearly guess the amount of support she provided by filming every essential thing.

While the documentary’s main focus is the “free press,” the all-important election to crown a new chief becomes an interconnected supporting arc. As the fate of Mvskoke Media depends on the election to a huge extent, given the election potentially becomes a three-way race between Tiger III, Hill, and Steve Bruner, the third horse with corruption allegations but also a free press supporter.

Things don’t always go as planned, and Lucian Tiger III claims that the election was rigged, which leads to re-election, this time with the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based non-profit, keeping a close eye on the proceedings with a focus on conflict resolution. David Hill wins re-election, but despite the new chief’s support, the campaign by Mvskoke Media to regain their rights doesn’t end there because the council is still stacked with plenty of opponents.

It all comes down to the moment where the people, as they should, make the decisions, and that’s when we start to see how personally important this is to Ellis. Ellis was sacked from Mvskoke Media in 2011 after writing an article about the company’s then-chief, George Tiger, who interestingly spent 2020 in prison on a bribery charge. This information had already been made public.

It was Ellis who raised her voice inside the national council chamber during the first submission of the “free press” bill against the “shield act,” which basically allowed the government to rephrase and change everything they didn’t like and publish “polished turd” (as labeled by Ellis) in the name of journalism. Most importantly, Ellis was the representative of the people who stood up to a fascist administration. Not to add, without Angel Ellis, I wouldn’t be writing this piece.

The world right now is filled with fascism, corruption, and so many evil people on top of regimes who shamelessly endorse all the wrongs and takes pleasure in exploiting “the people.” That is why people like Angel Ellis are true Superheroes, which we both need and deserve. I’m not sure if I should mention it here, but when I was writing this, I went to the Mvskoke Media website to express my gratitude for learning about what occurred and the inspiration I had from seeing it play out. I hope “Bad Press” accomplishes the same thing and reaches more people worldwide.

Bad Press was screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2023

Bad Press Links: IMDb

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