Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the founder of American Atheists and a force to be reckoned with. Known as tough, unapologetic, and even brutal at times, including to those she loved, O’Hair was a true revolutionary for the secular movement. Her groundbreaking 1963 Supreme Court victory outlawing Bible-reading in US public schools was surely her greatest accomplishment.
A new Netflix docudrama titled The Most Hated Woman in America (a nickname first used in print in Life magazine during the prayer case and that O’Hair herself embraced), is Madalyn’s story—well, mostly. The story focuses on the kidnapping of the famous atheist crusader (played by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo), her son Jon Garth Murray (Michael Chernus), and her granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair (Juno Temple), which ultimately led to their gruesome deaths in 1995.
Throughout the film we’re juggled between her past and the terrifying kidnapping scene, the unfortunate result being that we don’t get to experience much of O’Hair’s past. We get a peek into her young-adult days, living with very religious parents, and later her raising an atheist son, Bill (Vincent Kartheiser)—the same son who would start the wheels in motion for her entire future and the future of American Atheists.
Directed by Tommy O’Haver, The Most Hated Woman in America depicts some groundbreaking moments. There’s the above-mentioned Supreme Court case eliminating religious prayer from public schools, which begins when Bill brings school prayer to his mother’s attention. This inspires O’Hair’s massive campaign to eliminate religion from the public sphere altogether. (It bears mentioning that the film neglects to credit the equally important Abington School District v. Schempp case that O’Hair’s case was consolidated with on appeal to the Supreme Court.)
The film then seems to fast-forward through her organizing days, showing just glimpses of her atheist activism, grassroots organizing, and forming American Atheists. There is no doubt that O’Hair did a lot for the movement. She made a name for atheism in America; whether or not you liked her attitude, atheism was on the map. But, for how passionate she was and how much she cared for those closest to her, her tragedy was how little people cared for her. When she, her son, and granddaughter went missing, no one looked for them. Even when an American Atheist employee, Roy Collier (played in the film by Brandon Mychal Smith), begged for police help and for family members and fellow employees to listen, no one cared. Part of the reason was because they were used to her outlandish and absurd tactics for attention and didn’t really think she was in danger.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the remains of Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were found—dismembered, burned, and buried. The first thought of many might be that the murderer was a crazed religious fanatic, angered by her atheist antics. But [SPOILER ALERT] her demise came down to good old-fashioned greed: former American Atheists employee David Waters (Josh Lucas) knew about some secret funds and decided he wanted the money.
Unlike the story it tells and the characters involved, the film is unremarkable. The acting isn’t groundbreaking, though the cast is high-caliber. The storyline is full of holes, leaving out several interesting parts of O’Hair’s life to focus mainly on her death. And while O’Hair was known to be on the sharper side, this film did her no favors. It certainly makes it easy to see how so many could hate her and hate atheism, especially at a time shrouded by such religious influence.