Gloria Allred may be the most recognizable attorney currently practicing law, thanks to her flashbulb-ready news conferences with women who have accused Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and Roman Polanski, among other famous men, of sexual misconduct.
You’d think it would be easy to get a person who clamors for the spotlight to agree to a documentary about her life. But you’d be wrong. “Gloria is a very private person,’’ said documentarian Sophie Sartain, who, along with her co-director Roberta Grossman, wooed Allred for two years before the lawyer agreed to be filmed.
‘‘I really prefer to talk about the issues rather than myself,’’ Allred explained by phone.
That’s one of many surprises about ‘‘Seeing Allred,’’ which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now streaming on Netflix. It begins with some of the common narratives that have trailed Allred’s more-than-40-year career.
On ‘‘The Simpsons,’’ she’s termed a ‘‘shrill feminist attorney,’’ and on ‘‘South Park,’’ an exaggerated version of her ridicules a gay man for being homophobic. ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ portrayed her as a relentless self-promoter.
Through it all, she’s kept the same perfectly lipsticked smile while confronting detractors on talk show after talk show.
But there’s more to the 76-year-old lawyer, the filmmakers believed, and they were determined to show the world.
‘‘It’s very motivating if you have an injustice or a wrong you want to fight against or correct when you set out to make a documentary,’’ Grossman said. ‘‘We felt that she should be seen as what she is, which is a tireless fighter on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights. Instead, the noise was so critical of her that we wanted to show that she was the real deal.’’
In fact, the movie makes a convincing case that Allred was simply ahead of her time and now, with the Me Too movement in full swing, the world is catching up. She was fighting abuses in the Catholic church as early as 1984, and in 2004, she filed the first lawsuit in California challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban; she’s been taking on sexual harassment cases since long before Anita Hill made it mainstream.
Not that Allred cares either way how she’s perceived. ‘‘I think I’m very well understood by many people and misunderstood by those who wish to misunderstand, because they have an agenda that is different than mine,’’ Allred says in the movie. ‘‘I don’t really care.’’
During an interview, Allred responded to every personal question by forcibly steering the conversation back to her work and her ‘‘courageous’’ clients. “If people are calling names, then that means they don’t have a good argument against what we’re doing,’’ she said. ‘‘So I feel that that’s actually a statement by them that I must be right.’’
In the film, she does share a harrowing personal story, a tale she’s revealed before to explain, in part, her dogged commitment to women’s rights. As a young woman while on vacation in Mexico, she went on a date with a doctor, who raped her at gunpoint.
When she returned home, she found out she was pregnant and — this being the days before Roe v. Wade — had an illegal abortion that left her hemorrhaging blood. At the emergency room, she was physically healed but also emotionally violated by a nurse who told her, ‘‘This will teach you a lesson.’’
Sartain and Grossman began filming Allred in 2014, a few months before she started working with women accusing Cosby of drugging and assaulting them. In the movie, Allred explains that she’s reluctant to take on the clients because there’s no legal options for many of them — the statute of limitations has long since expired. So instead, she begins working on changing the statute of limitations itself.
‘I think I’m very well understood by many people and misunderstood by those who wish to misunderstand. . . . I don’t really care’
Along the way, through her trademark news conferences, Allred gives the women a platform, which affects the public’s view of the case.
‘‘When those first women came forward in late 2014, early 2015, a lot of people didn’t believe them,’’ Sartain said. ‘‘We saw how public opinion shifted in that situation as more and more women came forward.’’
As allegations of sexual harassment and worse continue to cascade forth, discussions have become heated over how to deal with the claims. Aren’t the accused innocent until proven guilty by a court of law?
As Allred explains, that’s a moot point for many because of how much time has elapsed. But ‘‘there’s no statute of limitations on the right to exercise free speech,’’ she said. ‘‘For many [women], this is the only recourse they have — it’s access to the court of public opinion.’’
Allred’s opponents deem the news conferences vulgar spectacles. But they have their place, Allred explained. For example, the early 1980s news conference she held for a same-sex couple who had been denied a romantic table at a Los Angeles restaurant felt like a cultural moment.
‘‘I had my clients, who were lesbian partners, speaking on television, and some people had never heard anyone self-identifying as lesbians speaking out on television,’’ Allred said. ‘‘They were businesswomen and very polite and articulate, so we dispelled stereotypes and also fought for legal rights.’’
She won the case.
Filming for the documentary ended around the time of Trump’s inauguration, so we see Allred at the women’s march and participating in another protest on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the movie, a couple of men approach the lawyer and get in her face, scolding her about the sin of same-sex marriage. ‘‘God’s major courtroom is gonna put you in hell, Gloria,’’ one says.
‘‘First of all, I want to thank you for expressing your free speech, which you and I both treasure,’’ Allred replies with her tight, fuchsia smile. ‘‘Even though we disagree, I want you to know that you matter.’’
And with that, a group of people encircle Allred, creating a barrier between her and the men. They start chanting ‘‘Gloria! Gloria!’’ It’s the kind of scene that would probably seem over-the-top in a feature film, but it’s really happening. And, for a moment, it seems like maybe Allred’s days of being parodied are over.