From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my 3 1/2-star review of “Bully,” click here.
Oklahomans working for change with ‘Bully’
After appearing in the powerful documentary, teens Alex Libby and Kelby Johnson and their parents have become an inspiration for many and an extended family for each other.
Bobby Johnson promised there would be hugging. And he wasn’t wrong.
When his daughter, Kelby Johnson, 19, spotted Alex Libby, 15, in the lobby of the AMC Quails Springs movie theater, they hurried to embrace each other, while their younger siblings, parents and Kelby’s girlfriend joined in the giant hug-fest.
After all, the Johnsons and Libbys are family now, tied not by blood but by a common struggle and a common hope.
Alex, a former Sioux City, Iowa, resident who now lives in Edmond, and Kelby, a one-time Tuttle denizen who makes her home in Oklahoma City, are among the young stars of the powerful new documentary “Bully,” which chronicles five American adolescents’ struggles with bullying.
The Libbys and Johnsons attended Monday night an exclusive preview of the film, which opens Friday in Oklahoma City. Kirk and Laura Smalley of Perkins, whose 11-year-old son Ty committed suicide in 2010 after enduring bullying, also are featured in the documentary but weren’t in attendance at the screening, which drew about 50 journalists, educators and parents.
“I know I speak for the Libbys as well because we’ve all grown very close through this ordeal when I stand here and say that we don’t want your pity. We want your help. We took part in this film … because we felt like we didn’t have a voice,” Bobby Johnson told the crowd during a question-and-answer session after the movie. “We had done everything we could and were getting nowhere. And we took the step of putting our lives out in front of everyone so everyone could see, and I hope that this is gonna drive people to action — and to let them know they’re not alone.”
Going on camera
During the 2009-2010 school year, filmmaker Lee Hirsch and his crew followed five families affected by adolescent bullying, including the Smalleys and Georgians David and Tina Long, whose children committed suicide after suffering bullying.
The documentary earned national attention after the Motion Picture Association of America assigned it an R rating because of profane language used by the teen bullies chronicled in the movie. The R rating meant children younger than 17 were restricted from seeing it without an accompanying adult and down the line some schools would be prohibited from showing it.
The Weinstein Company, the film’s distributor, pleaded for the rating to be lowered to PG-13, and when the MPAA denied the appeal, the studio released it unrated March 30 in Los Angeles and New York. The clash between Weinstein and the MPAA prompted Katy Butler, a 17-year-old high school Michigan high school student and former bullying victim, to start an online petition that received more than 520,000 signatures.
Last week, the MPAA opted to downgrade the rating to PG-13 after the filmmakers made minor edits, to the relief of the Libbys and Johnsons.
“If they really want to do something, they’re gonna find a way to do it, so the more that everybody’s telling these kids ‘you can’t see this movie,’ the more they’re gonna go out and see it. By rating it R, all you’re doing is inhibiting it from being able to discuss it with their parents,” said Alex’s mother Jackie Libby. “If your parent tells you ‘you can’t go and see this film,’ and you go see it, now you have all this emotion inside of you and no one to talk to about it.”
Hirsch refused to censor a crucial scene in which Alex is cruelly harassed on his school bus, where he was cursed at, punched, choked and stabbed with pencils — and it was all caught on film.
“The director was actually on the bus with a small handheld camera,” said Alex’s father, Philip Libby.
“Just to be clear, Lee didn’t use any hidden cameras,” his wife added. “What happens, though, is like what happened in our case: He was in our life for a little over a year. So we kind of forgot he was there. I mean, he became like family (for us).”
Becoming a family
Hirsch wasn’t the only extended family they gained over the course of making and promoting the movie.
“We’ve bonded and have friendships with not only us but with the Smalleys and the Longs that are gonna last us a lifetime,” said Londa Johnson, Kelby’s mother.
The Libbys even lived with the Johnsons for three weeks while house hunting.
“We were never happy in (Sioux) City; it’s a very closed-minded place to live,” Jackie Libby said. “But we moved immediately after they premiered it in our city … in front of the school and 1,700 people. We were out the next day.”
“We chose Oklahoma … because of our relationships with the Johnsons and the Smalleys, and Edmond specifically for the schools,” her husband said.
Alex, the oldest of their five children, is now a freshman at Edmond Memorial High School.
“My parents have shown me messages on Facebook from the bullies and the bullied saying ‘Alex you are an inspiration to me,’” he said. “I’ve got good grades and tons of friends now. And life’s good as far as I know.”
Kelby also has moved on from Tuttle. In “Bully,” she and her parents describe in heartwrenching detail the ostracizing and mocking they suffered in her hometown after she came out as a lesbian at age 16. Although Kelby determinedly stayed in Tuttle for awhile in the hopes of sparking change, by the end of the film, her she and her parents decide to pull her out of high school.
“I moved to Oklahoma City, got out of Tuttle, dropped out of school, got my GED, and hope to go to college soon. I’m taking an internship in Washington, D.C., to lobby for the Safe Schools Act so I can help make schools a safer place,” said Kelby, who along with Jackie Libby planned to fly Tuesday to the nation’s capitol.
For nearly an hour after Monday’s screening, the Libbys and Johnsons answered questions, commiserated with tearful parents and encouraged movie-goers to get involved in the anti-bullying movement. And as Bobby Johnson promised, there were plenty more hugs to go around.
“You heard one of the administrators up here (in the film) say it’s a very complicated and complex situation. It’s not. You get what you tolerate. What we’re asking is for this not be tolerated in our schools,” he said. “When the children and faculty understand that that type of behavior is not to be tolerated, it will stop.”
Oklahomans working for change with ‘Bully’