Back in 2021, the hashtag #BamaRush trended on social media, following a series of posts showing the over-the-top rituals involved in the process of rushing sororities at the University of Alabama. This has resulted, less than two years later, in a documentary of that name, which debuted this week on the streaming service now known as Max. (Although, in a blow to the service’s new rebranding efforts, "HBO Max" is mentioned in the first 10 seconds.)
Bama Rush is several things at once: A look at the University of Alabama's sorority system, a behind-the-scenes exploration at how the filmmakers ran into resistance from the university, and earnest disquisitions from the director, Rachel Fleit, about how her experiences with alopecia made her relate to the judgments faced by the college students entering the rush process.
The film follows four young women as they navigate the school's sorority rush process, which includes sororities considered "top-tier" and "bottom-tier." There’s a sorority rush consultant, a woman who assists young girls with that judgmental process. But unfortunately, the doc manages to make something boring out of what should be a fascinating subject, thanks to a meandering focus, mere lip service paid to serious and weighty subjects, and very little that's groundbreaking or surprising.
It's dull. The main subjects aren't well-chosen, and some drama involving interpersonal feuds feels tacked-on. I didn’t care whether these people got accepted into the sororities. There’s no clandestine look inside what goes on in sorority houses, with the majority of the film devoted instead to talking-head interviews. And these include the director, repeatedly, talking about her experiences with alopecia. This is a sympathetic story, but it doesn't fit with this documentary.
Bama Rush touches lightly on racism, sexual assault, body-image issues, and fraternity/sorority double standards when it comes to alcohol. Hazing is barely mentioned; Byron Hurt's fine documentary Hazing, from last year, was an illuminating look at Greek life that asked a lot of uncomfortable questions that Bama Rush almost entirely sidesteps.
In the final third, the film is largely about the Greek system, and the leadership of the university itself, finding out about the documentary and trying to resist its existence. But even this isn’t quite as intriguing as it should be, and is moot, because the film doesn't reveal or expose anything.
The most fascinating aspect of the doc is its discussion of The Machine, a secretive, century-old organization with roots in the University of Alabama's Greek system. It's a cross between a Southern version of Skull and Bones, and an urban political machine—except that it has its fingers in both student government and actual state government in Alabama. The film interviews some journalists who’ve reported on The Machine, and implies that it exerts Mafia-like control over events in Tuscaloosa. I’d love to see a whole documentary about The Machine, but Bama Rush talks about it for five minutes before moving on, although it later tries to imply that The Machine was to blame for the university's resistance to the documentary.
Did the Machine, or other sources in Tuscaloosa, intervene successfully to prevent the makers of this film from exposing anything interesting? If that’s what happened, that story is much more compelling than what Bama Rush shows us.