**Warning: mild spoilers ahead**
In the world of fiction, storytellers base their work on the world we know, and sometimes elect to tell true stories based the experiences of others. Such is the case for a new Netflix limited series, Unbelievable.
The series, based on the Pulitzer prize winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape, tells the gut-wrenching tale of a teenaged victim of a horrific crime, the police who dismissed her, and the female detectives who eventually uncovered the truth – after the assailant had tortured and traumatized many more women. It’s a harrowing account of the massive flaws in the U.S. justice system, as well as a heroic testament to the women willing to step up and pursue the man responsible for so much pain.
Hollywood is currently in the midst of a broad cultural change and is finally opening the door for untold stories. For storytellers, it’s important to remember: never underestimate the power of the truth.
The title alone tells audiences what we need to know about this harrowing true story: women who have stories to tell – often devastating and painful stories – are not believed. Such is the case with our main character, Marie.
Having recently aged out of foster care in Washington, Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever), is a teenager living alone for the first time when a man breaks into her apartment and violently attacks her, later taking much of the evidence – including her bedsheets and clothes – with him. We suffer with Marie each time she is asked to repeat what happened to her – to the responding officer, to the hospital staff, and multiple times to Detectives Parker and Pruitt (Eric Lange and Bill Fagerbakke). By the end of the pilot, Marie has been bullied into stating that she made the whole thing up, and the case is closed. Her truth is ignored.
That is, until the same thing happens in Colorado, at which point we follow the aftermath of Marie’s terrible ordeal as well as the new investigation, lead by Detectives Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). The two of them painstakingly collect evidence, connect the dots, and discover the truth.
But the show explores deeper truths by diving into more than just the facts of the case. There are the truths we tell that aren’t believed, and the truths we keep to ourselves in fear that we won’t be trusted. At a certain point, Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen begin to pursue a lead that suggests their suspect may be in law enforcement, a suspicion that the two keep tightly to themselves. Rasmussen warns her colleague that others will see it as “two lady cops trying to pin something on one of their co-workers.”
There are truths we all understand, but never acknowledge out loud. Detective Rasmussen eventually meets Detective Parker in person, and presents to him the mountain of evidence they have against the serial rapist whom Parker never believed existed. He expresses his guilt, and tells her how harshly he had judged other police officers who failed at their jobs, thinking “who let him on the force?” Only to realize that perhaps he, too, is now one of them. Rasmussen’s eyes scream “yeah, obviously, you piece of shit!” But, she says nothing. She, like so many women, knows she can’t unload her frustration and pain onto this man, no matter how much she wants to. It wouldn’t be professional, and it wouldn’t be polite. So she lets him acknowledge the truth on his own, and sends him on his way.
And sometimes, we assume truth where we shouldn’t. Marie’s two former foster mothers, Colleen and Judith (played by Bridget Everett and Elizabeth Marvel), doubt Marie’s story early on, simply because she is not acting like the “right” kind of victim. When Colleen takes her shopping for new sheets to replace the ones she lost the night of her attack, she’s shocked to discover that Marie wants the exact same sheets she had before. “After what happened on them?! If I were you I would never want to see those sheets again!” She exclaims. And the seed of doubt is easily planted. But in reality, there is only one truth when it comes to processing trauma: there is no “right” way to be a victim.
Stories allow audiences to connect with people we never expected to connect to and empathize with those whose experiences differ from our own. This is a powerful force for change in the world. At this moment in Hollywood, it is important to push the doors open as hard as we can. Filmmakers in the narrative world are seizing the opportunity to give a voice to those who those who have been ignored. After all, the truth is where we find the most powerful examples of human strength. With female characters in particular, it’s great to see the Ayra Starks and the Captain Marvels. But since “strong female character” is so often interpreted by sexist Hollywood as “girl who can punch people while still looking pretty,” this is exactly the time when we should be reminding them who we really are, and what we can really do.