The Lorena Bobbitt story launched a thousand jokes, from late-night comedians to Howard Stern. The four-part documentary “Lorena,” however, goes beyond the headlines about the woman who cut off her husband’s penis, yielding a thoughtful, comprehensive look at domestic abuse and how the media covers high-profile stories.
To do that, director Joshua Rofe — working with producers that include Jordan Peele — has to go back to the details of the 1993 case and the two trials that surrounded it, beginning with Lorena’s maiming of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, and its immediate aftermath.
Produced for Amazon, the documentary has the luxury of seemingly talking to everyone even peripherally connected to the story, from the principals to jurors, from the microsurgeon who operated on John to police offers who were told to go “look for the appendage.”
“If you can’t find it, I can’t put it back on,” David Berman, the doctor, recalls saying.
At first glance, four hours seems like a lot of time to devote to the story. But “Lorena” uses that time to contextualize events that surrounded the case, from Anita Hill’s testimony to the Tailhook convention to the O.J. Simpson trial, all of which touch upon sexual politics and how the media processed sexual-assault and harassment allegations, including the question of marital rape.
Nobody covering the story comes off particularly well; still, a few personalities look especially bad with the benefit of hindsight, from Geraldo Rivera seeking to bully his way into interviews to Stern yukking it up — even making light of the rape allegations — on his radio show with John, who embraced and sought to profit from his place in tabloid culture, and whose transgressions didn’t end after the trials.
The coverage, however, was often questionable even in seemingly more sober venues, from network newsmagazines to Vanity Fair, which talked Lorena into posing for photos in a swimming pool as part of an interview.
Lorena is, not surprisingly, the heart and soul of the documentary, conveying the confusion of suddenly finding herself in the center ring of a media circus. That included dealing not only with the spotlight — sitting through interviews like the one shown with Steve Harvey, who coyly jokes about her actions — but pivoting to use her story as “an opportunity to bring domestic violence into the public eye,” as Kim Gandy, head of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, puts it.
Perhaps foremost, “Lorena” not only documents shifting attitudes on the subject of how victimized women are treated but the way a media feeding frenzy can distort coverage.
Armed with the benefit of perspective, Rofe has rather masterfully stitched together a dense, often tragic story with both a sense of its absurdity then, and its lingering significance now. For anyone who can’t remember much more about the case than the jokes, that’s a message worth hearing.
“Lorena” premieres Feb. 15 on Amazon.