“The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” was initially conceived as an “‘O.J.: Made in America’ but for Britney Spears,” taking a deep dive into the invasive and inappropriate media coverage the pop star endured throughout the 2000s, but that quickly changed, according to director Samantha Stark. “As we were reporting and researching for the film, the conservatorship really came out as a huge storyline,” Stark shares at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above).
Spears has been under a conservatorship, overseen by her father Jamie Spears, since 2008 following her very public breakdown, preventing her from making any personal, business or financial decisions on her own. Since 2019, the conservatorship has been under intense scrutiny, sparking the fan-made #FreeBritney movement, which calls for an end to the legal arrangement. In August, Spears’ court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, filed documents stating that the singer does not want her father to be her conservator anymore. The 39-year-old is scheduled to speak in court on the case on June 23.
“Framing Britney Spears” tracks the court developments from the past year, interwoven with footage of Spears’ rise to fame in the late ’90s and the misogynistic coverage that in a post-#MeToo world, people are looking at in a different light. That included endless questions about her virginity (when she was a teenager, no less) and being blamed for her breakup with Justin Timberlake, who fanned the flames with his infamous “Cry Me a River” music video, with even Diane Sawyer grilling her in 2003 about causing him “so much pain.” By the time of her breakdown, she was painted as a crazy person who shaves her head and attacks paparazzi cars with umbrellas. For Stark, both the conservatorship and ruthless coverage were about control, and she wanted to reframe the conversation about Spears.
“This is about control — who has the control, when, we’re following the control, absolutely. I love that line where her backup dancer says people thought she was a puppet and that’s totally incorrect. He was really mad when he was talking about it. From what I heard from interviewing people … we realized that most of the people that had been interviewed about Britney in the past were kind of the same people — male record executives, male tabloid editors — and we wanted to see what would happen if we started to interviewing women,” Stark says. “And it was a huge revelation because they started describing Britney as someone who was really in control of her career as a rebel, as very business savvy as a teenager and also giving a lot of creative contributions.”
The film features interviews with several people from the early part of Spears’ career, including Felicia Culotta, a Spears family friend who worked as the singer’s assistant. Spears herself is not featured — though she has since made several Instagram posts alluding to the FX/FX on Hulu doc — and a title card at the end reveals that no one knows if she even got the interview request. Stark had never made a project without the main subject’s input and had “many sleepless nights” over it.
“I think it’s probably the biggest ethical dilemma of my career. I’ve never done that before … and I think the way that we justified it was that when these court documents started coming out … that she wanted her father removed, it said that she didn’t want this hidden away in the closet like a family secret and that the whole world was watching. That kind of allowed us to think, ‘OK, if this is true … it does give us a little bit of license,'” Stark explains. “But the main thing we decided was that we would never put thoughts into Britney’s head or guess what was in her head. And we also, from the very first day, promised each other that we would never make fun of Britney … even within our conversations with each other. Over the summer, it was OK to make fun of Britney Spears. That was just how you treated Britney Spears — you made fun of her. And we decided we’re not doing that. It was rough. We wanted to reframe her story, but also wanted to reframe our story. A lot of the film is about us, our culture and the way we treated her and why did we do that.”
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