“Unverified” opens tonight at The Varsity theater in downtown Chapel Hill, but Bradley Bethel, the film’s writer and director, was kind enough to share an advanced copy with SportsChannel8 for review. Due to the supercharged nature of the subject matter in our state, we’ll touch on both the film itself, and the backdrop of the UNC scandal.
Synopsis (provided via press kit):
“If you don’t read the newspapers, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspapers, you’re misinformed.” – Mark Twain
Beginning in 2011, the story of UNC’s “fake classes” made national headlines as a massive athletics scandal. Caught between university deans unwilling to accept responsibility and news media eager to implicate athletics, UNC’s academic counselors for athletes found themselves accused of complicity and without the means to defend themselves. Bradley Bethel was a reading specialist for UNC athletes and was outraged by the way the press portrayed his colleagues. Refusing to remain silent, he set out to defend those falsely accused and give them a platform to tell their side of the story . In the process, he realized the problem was even bigger than the media. Following Bradley over the course of a year, UNVERIFIED challenges the headlines and tells a story more complicated and heartbreaking than the one we’ve heard in the news.
When you get the answer you want, stop asking questions.
If that’s the intended takeaway Bethel aimed to provide to the audience when he set out to make “Unverified”, then the film was an absolute success. Unfortunately, there were far too many instances where the filmmaker drove home this lesson by example, and the journey to shine a different light on friends Beth and Jamie, two academic counselors within the University of North Carolina’s maligned athletics support staff who were terminated in the wake of the Wainstein Report and subsequently raked through the coals by the media, fell short.
The film focused entirely too much on Bethel himself, including inner monologues, a 90-second montage of Bethel approaching and entering Ohio Stadium (although this certainly resonates with any sports fan), and a completely unnecessary scene where Bethel shouts at his laptop in anger over reading an editorial on the UNC scandal from a national football writer.
The low point of the film was a scene in Bethel’s house where he called a writer on speakerphone to confront him about allegedly misrepresenting a quote from ex-football star Deutna Williams. The writer expresses that he declined an invitation to be in Bethel’s documentary and reiterated a desire not to be included, all while unknowingly being filmed for the purpose of being included in the documentary after all. This scene greatly damaged Bethel’s intent to show that media will go to any measures to tell an emotionally charged story devoid of facts, which is exactly what Bethel did during this segment.
That’s not to say that there weren’t poignant, must-see moments throughout the 90 minute documentary. Beth Bridger sharing the details of how she was terminated by the University drew me into her story, and a great interview with UNC journalism professor Adam Hochberg was one of the few times Bethel’s choice to feature himself paid off. During the conversation, Hochberg points out “the media didn’t fire anyone”, and the immediate reversal in Bethel’s direction was a refreshing reminder that minds can be changed. Lastly, the film’s climax, an interview with ex-Chancellor James Moeser, was well worth the time it took to view the entire documentary.
In fact, the Moeser interview should have been a clue to Bethel to scrap the project and start over from the beginning as soon as he heard “AFAM was given a pass because no one wanted to be seen as dealing harshly with an African American Studies Department. Candidly.” Moeser goes on to add, “[Those responsible for the scandal] were people that were trying to help other people. People who were mostly poor, mostly black, coming from very poor households … giving them a leg up.” Now THAT’S a documentary, the attitude towards the AFAM department and its eventual, irreversible destruction, that’s far more gripping than the plight of two former academic advisors who both landed on their feet quite nicely just months after being dismissed by the university.
Unfortunately, Bethel redirected Moeser to the Wainstein report and succeeded in getting him to question whether or not the report was used appropriately to pinpoint Beth and Jamie, and in getting him to admit that the two may have been used as scapegoats when the University was satisfied with the answer they wanted to hear.
As with everyone else in the crosshairs of this documentary – the media and their readers, the investigators, and the University at large – as soon as Bethel got the answer he set out to find, the film ends with Bethel walking away from a freshly painted Old Well, satisfied with a job well done.
Now, on the topic of the backdrop itself, I expect most will be disappointed that Bethel doesn’t attack the validity of the allegations against the University of North Carolina. There’s enough sprinkled in that will satisfy UNC’ers and anger ABC’ers, but the scandal is not a central piece of the film. Considering that Bethel raised $150,000 from private donations, and assuming that a large portion of those donations came from Tar Heel fans expecting “Unverified” to rip apart the core of the Wainstein report and exonerate the university, I’m very interested to follow the reactions from the general public after seeing the film.
Personally, I enjoyed the film more than I would have if the scandal had been the central piece of the story. There’s a general acceptance that something bad happened at UNC for a long period of time, and there’s certainly an effort to show that academic advisors did nothing wrong in providing the athletes an opportunity to succeed, and the athletes did nothing wrong in taking advantage of that support. There is such fatigue surrounding this topic in North Carolina that the film is better off for keeping that story on the outskirts, and in general, is a relatively enlightening look at how the media tells stories and how the public consumes them.
The absence of information gets filled with assumptions, and as pointed out previously, when we, the audience, hear the answers we want to hear, we stop looking for actual information to fill those gaps. The pinning of the UNC scandal on two members of the academic support staff in athletics gives the media a great story to write, gives the University and their athletics department a plausible scapegoat, and gives UNC fans enough distance from head coaches and athletic staff members. It’s not fair, and Bethel succeeded in pointing that out. I just wish the film had gone further in getting those in power to dig deeper instead of just being satisfied with a small piece of personal validation.