From eye-rolling to empowerment: Inside Starz’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Doc

From eye-rolling to empowerment: Inside Starz's Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Doc

Daughters of the Sexual Revolution director Dana Adam Shapiro considers himself a supporter of women’s empowerment. But, until he dived into his documentary on the origins of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleading, he didn’t see what professional cheerleading had to do with it.

He remembers watching the Super Bowl with his son and thinking: “They still have cheerleaders?”

He wasn’t the only one who scoffed at first. When he brought the documentary to the festival circuit, he would ask other festivalgoers what film they would most like to see. Are they interested in the one about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleading? The question garnered more eye rolls than enthusiasm.

“It happens a lot,” he told THR. “There are so many eye rolls, just on topic only. Like, ‘I don’t want to see it.’”

He got it. She had also made some unwarranted judgments about the world of cheerleading. But as Shapiro soon discovered as he researched his documentary, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleading was much more than athletic eye candy. The squad rose to prominence during a period of intense cultural and political turmoil: Dallas was recovering from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The city has just begun to desegregate. And the women’s movement changed the country when Roe v. Wade (the defendant named in the original case, which eventually went up to the Supreme Court, was Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade) became state law.

“What an interesting place to tell the story of this highly controversial pop culture phenomenon that is truly loved and hated in equal measure,” said Shapiro. “It feels like there is a very culturally rich story to tell here.”

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were inseparable from the politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, they are often at the center of one of the greatest debates of this era: sexual liberation.

Daughters of the Sexual Revolution explores this theme heavily. Are the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders a symbol of sexual empowerment or exploitation? Do they represent the same value as the decisions made in Roe v. Wade — made in the same city, around the same time — or quite the opposite?

“[There’s] the contrast of this gendered cheerleader on the sidelines, and then round the corner in the Dallas County Courthouse you have [the case leading up to] a Supreme Court decision giving women power over their own bodies for the first time. ,” said Shapiro of the film’s main conflict.

Of course, he left the answer to the women themselves.

“It was an exploratory process for me,” he explained. “I don’t really know where I’m going. It was like, ‘Let’s see where that story takes us.’”

Shapiro has a few questions he plans to ask everyone: How are you feeling? Do you feel exploited? She knew she wanted to ask about key moments — like the wink seen around the world, when a cheerleader in 1976 flirtatiously set her sights on a TV camera (broadcasting to 76 million viewers) and turned what had become a local phenomenon into national sensation.

But the director found his best moments in questions he never expected to be asked.

“I think for me, a lot of times you come in, like, very prepared with a list of questions that you feel flows perfectly from topic to topic,” he says. “But actually you ask that one question and then they say something and all of a sudden, that list of questions or scripts gets dumped almost every time.”

Shapiro remembers his conversation with Suzanne Mitchell, the director of DCC, when she told him she had been raped twice.

“That’s definitely not the answer to questions like, ‘Have you ever been raped?'” she said.

Instead, he tries to let his subjects tell the stories they think are most important.

He didn’t ask them to divulge their experiences with sexual assault, eating disorders, or stalking. But the negative was intertwined with the positive, and Shapiro knew he needed to tell the whole story.

“These are complicated times. It’s a complicated life,” he said. “And I just thought it would hurt the women [to not tell the whole story].”

The documentary (which premiered on Starz on January 14) doesn’t end with definitive answers to any questions asked about these women and their heritage, but Shapiro says he hopes viewers see that the story is more than just a group of women dancing and waving pompoms.

“You think something is ridiculous, but you realize it’s just your own judgment or your own biases that take over,” he said. “If people would take the time to get to know people you assume were spontaneous, [the world] would be a better place.”

Bing Liu’s deep dives into the lives of three young skateboarders in their Rust Belt hometown tore up the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Acquired by Hulu for distribution rights at the festival, the documentary received a US documentary special jury award for groundbreaking filmmaking. Minding the Gap bridges the gap from contender to nominee, as Liu’s first feature also received an Oscar nomination.

Not only has Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s death-defying documentary, but also rose to the top of the Oscar race, winning the award for best feature documentary in March. Also honored with the people’s choice award at TIFF, Nat Geo’s Free Solo charted Honnold’s preparations for a free solo climb of Yosemite’s famous granite rock formations, a feat he accomplished in June 2017.

Quincy not only depicts the life of legendary producer and music icon Quincy Jones, but also through the personal lens of his own daughter. Directing and co-writing Netflix films with Alan Hicks, Rashida Jones draws on her father’s personal and professional success, highlighting her father’s lasting impact on the industry with testimonials from Will Smith and Lady Gaga. Quincy won a Grammy for best musical film.

Sandi Tan’s self-reflection dock was driven by the discovery of missing footage from his experience making Singapore’s first street film in 1992. Winning the world cinema documentary director award at Sundance, Tan became the second filmmaker from Singapore to be honored at the festival (after Kirsten Tan, which won a special jury award for Pop Aye in 2017). His Netflix film also received Gotham and Spirit Award nominations.

This story first appeared in the stand-alone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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