Netflix’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair biopic explores the divisive legacy of one of the country’s most influential atheists.
There’s something exhilarating about “playing devil’s advocate”—you get to poke holes, and you don’t have to mend any. Perhaps that’s why most of the combatants in the “culture war” spend more time railing against alleged evils (whether it’s gay marriage or prayer in public schools) than they do supporting positive proposals. It also makes for more entertaining political theatre.
This principle is at the heart of the Netflix biopic The Most Hated Woman in America, which tells the story of the provocative and bristly Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists and a key player in a landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibited mandatory Bible-reading in public schools. The film focuses on the sordid end of O’Hair’s life in an effort at detailing how the prickly and provocative behaviors that landed her a national platform also provided her a host of personal and professional enemies. But Melissa Leo makes for far too likeable of a grumpy grandma for the point to really stick. Instead, the story of O’Hair’s rise to national stardom provides a fascinating and important look at the flaws of both sides of the “culture war.”
The documentary portrays O’Hair as a passionate “non-conformist” willing to pick a fight anywhere she can find one, from joining a lunch counter protest against segregation to railing against the convictions of her devout Christian father. After one fight culminates in a controversial Supreme Court decision, she discovers that people are willing to support her work, and she begins building a platform and securing financial support to found American Atheists. Before long, she’s …