Reimagining of American Atheists founder falls flat
“The Most Hated Woman in America” is one of Netflix’s newest movies. It’s a biographical movie about the life of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the controversial founder of American Atheists. O’Hair is played by Oscar-award-winning actress Melissa Leo, with Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) and Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) in supporting roles.
O’Hair is an influential activist even though few know who she is. Her most prominent act was her involvement in the 1963 Supreme Court case, Abington School District v. Schempp, in which the Supreme Court decided 8-1 that state-sponsored Bible readings in classrooms are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s decision said the constitution prohibits requiring any particular faith or creed, which Bible devotionals do. However, academic Biblical criticism is still acceptable as an educational discipline. The controversy around the case made her famous, and a cover article in “Life” magazine declared her the most hated woman in America, inspiring the name of the movie.
Leo faithfully portrays O’Hair as a combative, aggressive woman. She spoke her mind and didn’t care who it offended. She was always careful to point out she did not want to take anyone’s religion away; just that she didn’t want anyone to force their religion on her. Faith is a private, not public, matter to her, and it should be kept in private when possible.
The film does a good job showing the hate she and other prominent atheists receive from the religious. She enjoyed the irony that the followers of a religion proclaiming to be about love would graphically describe how she should die and suffer forever in Hell. Even today, atheist speakers receive hate mail and death threats, and we’re in a time more accepting of religious skepticism. O’Hair was a novelty in her time; a proud American and non-believer when godless was associated with communism.
Movies based on real people and events usually tweak events to make them more dramatic, but unfortunately, “The Most Hated Woman in America” invents an entire plot point that ruins O’Hair’s character. In real life, O’Hair and some of her family were kidnapped and murdered by people wanting access to her organization’s money, but the movie shows her embezzling those funds, and the kidnappers wanting those illegal accounts, which is a lie. According to Frank R. Zindler, former president of American Atheists and managing editor of American Atheist Press, the offshore accounts were public knowledge and the money was raised by members, with progress detailed in their newsletter. Making O’Hair a thief does nothing for her reputation, and makes atheists look like crooks and liars.
However, the biggest problem with the movie is not the inaccuracies. The problem is it’s not very good. The film tries to use a sepia tone to make the scenes in the 1960s and 1970s look older; instead, it just looks muddy. The story is told through two storylines: It opens with the kidnapping of the O’Hair family and tells that story intertwined with her life of activism. But their kidnapping isn’t an interesting story — it just drags on until the end. The rest of the movie is just a typical biopic — nothing remarkable. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, however hated, had a lasting influence on the country. If a movie needed to be made about her life, she deserved better than this one.