I doubt many of the people who read my column will have any interest in the Netflix film “The Most Hated Woman in America,” which chronicles the life and times of American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
For my part, I felt compelled to watch it, as I’ve always been fascinated by O’Hair and her single-minded crusade to eliminate religion from all aspects of American public life. Her lawsuit against her son’s school is the reason why prayer is no longer allowed in public education, and that victory has made her a hero to many and a demon to others.
Regardless of one’s opinion of her personally, there’s no denying she was a rather colorful and fascinating character, and her life of controversy, as well as the sordid nature of her kidnapping and subsequent murder, could very well be the basis of a compelling film.
Unfortunately, “The Most Hated Woman in America” is not that film.
While it boasts a stellar performance from star Melissa Leo, who credibly portrays O’Hair throughout four decades of her life, the movie doesn’t really have a coherent point of view.
Its hagiographic intentions are thwarted by the seedier aspects of O’Hair’s life that are impossible to ignore, most notably her penchant for fraud and embezzlement. The film tries to make the case that O’Hair was constantly in danger of being shot down by religious zealots, but, in the end, she was murdered by one of her former employees who was trying to get his hands on her secret offshore accounts. Yet, even though her killer was a fellow atheist, the movie goes out of its way to make religious people the true villains of the story.
It seemed apparent to me, then, that the people who produced “The Most Hated Woman in America” really like their ostensibly hated subject. What they really hate is religious people.
Now I recognize that’s probably unfair of me to say that, as I am in no position to judge the hearts or intents of filmmakers I have never met. But in watching this film, I couldn’t help but notice that every religious character in it was a smug, sanctimonious, hypocritical idiot. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate decision to mock the faithful or an example of writers trying to get in the heads of characters they simply didn’t understand. Regardless of the intent, the outcome is the same — all the reasonable people in this movie are the people who completely reject God.
The problem begins with the portrayal of O’Hair’s father, who shows no compassion for his wayward daughter and instead spends all of his time lecturing her for her sinful ways, all the while with a dour look on his face. Now, given that O’Hair’s real-life parents provided a home for her and her son for many years when she was struggling to find work, it’s likely that they were far kinder than this movie would have you believe.
The hostility to faith is nowhere more evident, however, than in the scene where O’Hair confronts her son’s teacher during his school’s morning recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The teacher is portrayed as a virtual clone of Dana Carvey’s self-righteous "Saturday Night Live" church lady character, only less sympathetic. She’s an over-the-top parody, and her final line — “Well, sue, then!” — comes across as a parody of a parody. It’s such a ridiculously melodramatic moment that it drains all credibility from the rest of the film, and the movie never recovers.
In the end, it’s not likely that many people will see this film, so the fact that it’s not very good doesn’t matter much. It’s just one more nugget of evidence that modern Hollywood doesn’t understand or appreciate people of faith.