Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a strong-willed atheist who fought tirelessly for the separation of church and state, founded the American Atheists in 1963. Her son Billy was forced to pray in school despite being an atheist, but she and her son helped to end mandatory prayer in public schools in 1959 when they won the Supreme Court Case Murray v. Curlett. The new film “The Most Hated Woman in America” follows O’Hair’s tumultuous life and tragic death. The film begins with a bang — the opening scene depicts the kidnapping of O’Hair, along with her son Garth and his daughter Robin, as they sit on a motel bed with bags over their heads. The story then jumps back and forth through decades and tells the story of O’Hair — sometimes known as “Mad Madalyn.”
The film paints O’Hair as an incredibly complicated and controversial woman who spent her life fighting for religious freedom. Melissa Leo’s intense and comprehensive performance as O’Hair gives depth to a complex character. Leo portrays a character who often criticizes Christians for being more interested in money than religion while also embezzling money from AA. She also adamantly protects those she believes to be persecuted — whether it be participating in desegregation rallies or insisting upon removing organized religion from public arenas. Her activism helps her case when police investigator Roy Collier (Brandon Mychal Smith) instigates the search for the kidnapping victims because of how she helped him in his time of need.
O’Hair’s tumultuous relationship with her son Billy is essential to understanding the story and her personality. Although this added to the plot — especially considering that Billy converted to Christianity later in his life — it felt like the most boring part of the film. This feeling is exacerbated by Garth’s increased involvement in AA and ultimately becoming the organization’s president, while Billy became estranged from his mother. O’Hair’s relationships with both Garth and Robin are not as explored as the one with Billy and could have been more interesting.
There is also a part of the film devoted to the relationship between the kidnappers — ringleader David Waters, Danny Fry and Gary Karr — and O’Hair. However, it was less drawn out than the film’s other key plot points. Waters had been an employee at AA and had an odd mother-son type relationship with O’Hair during his time in the organization, a fact which was underwhelming and poorly depicted in the film, leaving many questions and raised brows.
Ultimately, O’Hair’s legacy is a complicated one — impossible to fully explain in span of one film. In some ways, she was a pioneer for atheism in a time and place ruled by Christianity and a person who fought for tolerance. In other ways she was manipulative to those she loved the most and exploited her organization. Overall, the movie successfully looked closer at this this complicated person’s captivating story and untimely death.
“The Most Hated Woman in America” will be available worldwide on Netflix beginning on March 24.
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