The title might give the game away a little, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of How to Create a Sex Scandal. The new Max docuseries, brisk, brief, and damning, makes a convincing case that an East Texas pedophilia case that sent seven people to prison was in fact a frame job, conceived of greed and a badly damaged moral compass, and still not entirely rectified. This is the kind of filmmaking that can affect actual change.
The directors, Julian P. Hobbs and Berndt Mader, build their case carefully, letting the pertinent information trickle out to support the narrative as it develops. The setting is Mineola, a little town with a population hovering around 5,000, not far from Tyler. You might remember the broad details. A handful of children told a horrific story of sex abuse involving a “sex kindergarten,” in which children were allegedly trained to perform exotic dances in a trailer and then perform other sex acts at a nearby swinger’s club (which did, in fact, exist). A Texas Ranger, Philip Kemp, and the kids’ foster mother, Margie Cantrell, drew lurid accounts from the children, which, despite a lack of physical evidence or adult witnesses, were enough for a zealous prosecutor and multiple juries to get convictions and prison sentences.
The filmmakers initially wade in with caution, even as the footage of Cantrell and Kemp interviewing (or prompting) the children strongly indicates something doesn’t smell right. But maybe this Margie Cantrell person is on the up and up, even if she does possess an actorly ability to cry on demand. Maybe these horrible things did happen. Then the bombshells start dropping with the ferocity of an air attack. A former foster daughter accuses Margie’s husband, John, of sexual abuse. Evidence appears to have been withheld during the East Texas trials, which began in 2008. Many of the children, now adults, start telling a much different story — of how Margie, an alleged serial abuser, instructed them to invent their horror stories. And a financial motive emerges for Margie to have done just that. As How to Create a Sex Scandal steams ahead through three brisk, 45-minute episodes, it becomes clear what the filmmakers believe: This was a tragic, life-destroying scam. It also becomes increasingly difficult for the viewer to believe otherwise.
How to Create a Sex Scandal is based largely on a series of Texas Monthly articles by Michael Hall, who appears in the series and deserves much of the credit for bringing the story into the light. (He was also a consulting producer on the series). But there is an immediacy here that can only be captured by the camera. The filmmakers apply a deft touch in creating a crisp storytelling rhythm, mixing archival footage, recent interviews and period media coverage surrounding the story, which did its own part to beat the drums of hysteria.
What emerges is a tale of small-town injustice that would seem to belong to another century. We’re used to hearing stories of how racism has been used to trump up charges for nonexistent crimes. Here, the filmmakers argue for the role of class. The accused in this case were literally from the wrong side of the tracks. Cantrell, a California transplant and career foster parent, was, by comparison, well-to-do. How to Create a Sex Scandal makes the case that Cantrell saw some easy marks — as one of the accused describes herself, “Poor people with poor people problems” — and let her imagination, and foster children, do the rest.
Mader, a Texas-based filmmaker, isn’t new to this story. In 2015, he made Booger Red, a hybrid documentary/narrative inspired by the Mineola case (the title of the film comes from the nickname of one of the accused, Patrick Kelly, also featured in the docuseries). This time, working with Hobbs (House of Hammer) and with further developments, he returns to the scene with a chance to right some real-life wrongs. How to Create a Sex Scandal argues that, at the very least, these nefarious characters ran roughshod over the legal process. That’s just the nuts and bolts of it. The human toll — the separation of families, the destruction of reputations — is at least as severe.
It is always possible that the carefully marshaled arguments and information on display here aren’t as veracious as they appear. But the series’ case seems very strong. How to Create a Sex Scandal has the power to prompt the reopening of these cases, perhaps with a more skeptical eye than before. It can succeed where the system failed.