There’s a race on to reinterpret recent history, particularly sensational crime cases, trials and other tabloid tragedies, to see how they look in a more modern context. In both television and film, you can achieve this through dramatization or documentary or some combination of the two. The results are often remarkable and unexpectedly cathartic.
After a 2016 FX drama series about the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995, American culture took a moment to revisit its feelings about Marcia Clark, and more or less concluded that we had her all wrong the first time — she was not the blundering termagant, but a hard-working prosecutor coping with sexist media coverage along with incompetence and racism in her witness stand.
With a shifted perspective (and a 2018 FX series), Andrew Cunanan is still the psychopath who murdered Gianni Versace and others in 1997, but do his and his victims’ stories also contain lessons in society’s ingrained homophobia? Did we, in other words, have him all wrong? Redeemed on the movie screen, Tonya Harding suffered a range of abuse from a coldhearted mother and a hotheaded husband — seems we had her all wrong.
Sometimes these projects get shelved before shooting even begins, fast-forwarding instead to newfound empathies: Monica Lewinsky, a briefly reckless young woman, was made to suffer for an indiscretion far longer than Bill Clinton ever did — we had her all wrong. Princess Diana, devoted single mother who was desperate for a little normalcy — we had her all wrong. Patty Hearst, pardoned domestic terrorist, is now understood first as a rape victim — we had her all wrong.
Which brings us to Lorena Bobbitt, subject of a naturally fascinating but slightly overindulged and unevenly paced documentary series premiering Friday on Amazon Prime, in which the following should come as no surprise: We had her all wrong. Probably.
“Lorena,” directed by Joshua Rofé (co-produced by Jordan Peele, among others), is a thorough, four-hour look back at the early morning of June 23, 1993, when Bobbitt, then 22, in what a jury would agree was a moment of temporary insanity (“irresistible impulse” under Virginia law), took a knife from the kitchen of her Manassas apartment and cut off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, then 26, while he slept in their bedroom.
Fleeing the scene, Lorena tossed the severed appendage out the window of her car, into the tall grass across the street from a 7-Eleven. She put the knife in a trash can near the nail salon where she worked as a manicurist.
Details, details, details: Some of you may think the wall-to-wall coverage of the Bobbitt saga was only yesterday, but it really has been 25 long years. Most of “Lorena’s” audience probably won’t know the facts at the granular and admittedly mesmerizing degree to which Rofé researches and presents them.
And anyhow, we could all stand to start this story fresh, with facts taking precedence over the hoots and hollers that dominated media coverage at the time. The first hour is mostly taken up with recollections of the immediate aftermath: John’s bloody trip to the hospital; the discovery by still-blushing law officers of his penis in the grass; the surgical expertise that restored it to full function; a nation reeling from infinite grimaces (men) and attagirls (women) as the story caught fire.
Forgotten in the chaos was a quiet but steady chorus of women’s rights advocates who immediately saw in Lorena the telltale signs of a battered wife: traumatized, desperate, pushed to an extreme and all but doomed to serve prison time on a mutilation charge.
Layer by layer — including present-day interviews with Lorena, John and the chorus of attorneys, investigators and reporters who played a role in the story — “Lorena” asks us to stop with the jokes already and listen.
Following a dream to study and live in the United States, Lorena was 17 when she came to Virginia from Venezuela (she was born in Ecuador) in 1988. She met a true-blue American who was literally named John Wayne, a lance corporal preparing to leave the Marines, and married him 10 months later.
By 1993, their marriage had soured. He was chronically unemployed and temperamental. She testified to several instances of marital rape and frequent physical and psychological abuse; police had responded to prior domestic violence calls at their home — some of those calls were from him. (He still denies abusing or raping her.)
Before Lorena’s trial in early 1994, John was quickly tried and acquitted on a rape charge and immediately availed himself of a prolonged victory lap through the celebrity sphere; he was lionized by the likes of Howard Stern (who never passed up an opportunity to bad-mouth Lorena) and eventually he (and his penis) accepted a starring role in a porn movie.
Her trial was longer and more complex, but, as “Lorena” shows, her allies were many and resolute. Most movingly, the members of the local immigrant community gathered to greet her with supportive posters and cheers each day at the Prince William County judicial center. They were disgusted by the xenophobic bullying Lorena received and the grossly misogynistic stereotype: fiery telenovela-style Latina takes revenge on the husband who could not please her.
Facing competition from the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding incident (followed a few months later by O.J.’s white Bronco chase), Lorena and John’s story faded with the newsprint and VHS archives, perhaps for the better — as the film makes clear, American society lacked both the maturity and empathy to see the case objectively.
“Lorena” spends too much repeating itself on these points as the series flags in its final hour, becoming more of a sermon than an epilogue. The jury acquitted Lorena, but first she had to spend 45 days in the state’s psychiatric hospital. John went on to face more allegations of abusing women, eventually doing time (for violating probation in a theft conviction) in the same Nevada prison that would later house O.J.
Where are they now? Here “Lorena” speeds too quickly past its richest and freshest material. John is living in Las Vegas, decked out in the conspicuous signifiers of a proud, 21st-century deplorable — notice the “DJTRUMP” vanity plates and the Punisher-logo T-shirt he wears to the shooting range. He speaks about a difficult childhood, which included sexual abuse. It feels as if we only scrape the surface of whatever lurks beneath.
Lorena, it appears, persisted heroically — staying in Virginia, earning a college degree, marrying happily and devoting herself to domestic violence awareness, even if getting her message out there means she still has to put up with the usual severed penis jokes.
Shockingly, she still gets lots of unwanted letters and cards from John — so many over the years that she stopped opening all of them. He wants to see her. He wants them to get back together. Think of the moneymaking potential, he writes. “You are always in my dreams,” she reads aloud from one. It’s sickening and even a little frightening.
Yet she doesn’t seem bothered or afraid, just confused about why he won’t move on. She’s over it.
Which brings us to “Lorena’s” central question: Are we over it?
Lorena (four episodes) available for streaming Friday on Amazon Prime. (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)