The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears premiered tonight on FX and Hulu, introducing a wider audience to the Free Britney movement that the pop star’s biggest fans have been supporting for nearly two years. As someone who has been obsessively following the case since it began, I was eager to see what a reputable outlet like The New York Times would do with the story in a video format. With that, here’s my opinion of what they did right, but also what they didn’t focus on enough or completely left out. And for anyone just finding out about this, know that the special really only scratches the surface of what’s been going on.
What They Did Right
Felicia Culotta’s Interview
Better known as Fe to the fans, having a constant presence from throughout Britney’s journey was very much needed. She’s a refreshing eye witness to Britney’s growth and development as a human being, someone who was working closely with the star right up until the conservatorship was put in place, at which time she was let go. She was then hired by the touring company, which she reveals probably didn’t know of her previous connection with Britney at the time. I was lucky enough to meet her twice and she’s just as sweet in person as she comes across in all interviews and fan footage. A+ on this character witness.
Properly Blaming the Media’s Coverage of Britney’s Struggles
From the public breakup with Justin Timberlake to claims of Britney being a bad mom, Framing Britney Spears really underlines how unjustly she was treated by the media. While many viewers of the special likely lived through this era, looking back on it from today’s media landscape, you can see just how awful they were to her. In the context presented, her head shaving incident feels less like a crazy person going off the rails and more like someone hoping to end her fame by removing one of her most attractive features. In reality, this was a girl in her early 20’s at the height of her fame trying to please everyone and feeling like she was failing at every turn. Who amongst us can’t relate to that?
Laying the Groundwork for Her Strained Relationship with Her Father
Interviews with her earliest agent, Nancy Carson, and the Senior Director of Marketing for Jive Records, Kim Kaiman, help to sew the story together of who Jamie Spears was at the onset of Britney’s fame. As the special documents Britney’s rise to stardom, it paints a picture of an absentee dad with his own struggles who was more concerned with his daughter earning enough money to buy him a boat than anything else. At the same time, it doesn’t dive deep enough into the shadiest aspects of how the conservatorship was formed (see “What They Got Wrong” for more information).
Presenting Britney as a Kind and Humble Person
Despite the general public’s preconceived notions of who Britney must be based on her song lyrics and on stage persona, her fans know that deep down, she’s a kindhearted person with a goofy personality. While the special downplays her freewheeling and fun spirit, save for a few excerpts from her Instagram posts, it does show several examples of her remaining true to herself and keeping her kindness in spite of everything. Stories about her giving everyone in her hometown of Kentwood $100 in cash on her first Christmas after finding success coupled with the fact that she could’ve ripped Justin Timberlake a new one at any point in time by sharing the tea just underscores why we all love her so much. It’s very much why we just want her to have a happy life on her own terms.
Two lawyers are interviewed, both of whom have firsthand experience with Britney’s case in different ways, only one of whom can openly talk about it. Adam Streisand (cousin of Barbra) was Britney’s own choice for a lawyer and shares what he’s able to about his meeting with Britney shortly after the temporary conservatorship began. He reveals his shock at being dismissed by a judge who had a medical report he wasn’t allowed to see, saying: “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I still don’t know what was in that report and so I had to respect that.”
The other lawyer is Vivian Lee Thoreen, who has experience working with conservatorships and was involved in the formation of Britney’s. She’s not at liberty to discuss Britney’s case, but answers general questions about conservatorships because Britney’s case has brought to light some general concerns about the system. When asked about termination of conservatorships, she says this: “I have not seen a conservatee successfully terminate a conservatorship.” There you have it, and that’s essentially why Britney’s fans are fighting so hard on her behalf.
What They Did Wrong
Adam Streisand might not know what was on the report the judge was privy to, but the recently revealed petition filed by Jamie Spears claims she has dementia. Anyone who saw this special, the footage shown of Britney over the past twelve years and Strisand’s own description of her abilities would come to the logical conclusion that this was and is not the case. But more than that, anyone who’s been to a Britney concert since 2008 would be able to confirm that the star they saw was capable of remembering her choreography and having live audience interactions, including bringing a member of the audience on stage for an up-close encounter. The description that seemingly entered her into a conservatorship doesn’t match and leaving that out seems like a glaring mistake.
Follow the Money and See Where it Goes
The special frustratingly talks about how much money Britney has earned throughout her career, including the $1 million per week during the two years of her Las Vegas residency. Outside of Britney’s requests for a bank (Bessemer Trust Company) to take over as the conservator of her estate, replacing her father, the special doesn’t ask the question of why her net worth is comparatively low ($59 million) to her lifetime earnings (Over $670 million). It does at least mention that under the conservatorship, she not only pays her own legal fees but those of her conservators in addition to their paychecks. But a key piece of the Free Britney movement has been about trying to answer what should be a simple question: Where has all of her money gone? The special also doesn’t talk about all of her revenue streams beyond music and concerts, but includes a few excerpts from ads for her billion dollar fragrance line.
The Coordination Behind the Second Psychiatric Hold
The special segues from Britney’s first involuntary psychiatric hold in 2008 (the one that followed her refusal to release her sons into Kevin Federline’s custody) into a second one without missing a beat. Part of the reason why this second event is so controversial is that it appears that in the short period of time between the first and second event, Jamie Spears was starting the paperwork for the conservatorship. Under normal circumstances, an individual is notified that they are being put under a conservatorship and given the opportunity to make their case against it. Because Britney was in an involuntary psychiatric hold, she wasn’t given that opportunity. This is a big deal to not properly highlight.
The first hold was called in response to an immediate inciting incident (failure to release her kids to their legal custodian). In the case of the second hold, it was in response to the star allegedly not taking medication prescribed by a doctor and an incident in which she was described as “Driving like a mad woman.” This second hold was premeditated and carefully orchestrated, the call wasn’t in immediate response to the described events. Los Angeles taxpayers were outraged when it was discovered that the security detail surrounding this second hold cost them $25,000, whereas the first one cost no more than a typical 911 call. While her first 5150 ended after just 24 of the 72 hour holding time after doctors determined she was not a threat to herself or others, this second one was extended for a total of two-weeks, an extension that happened after the temporary conservatorship was put in place. The details surrounding this second involuntary hold and the fact that she became a conservatee during it are particularly troubling to fans. In addition, parties present at her house included then-manager Sam Lutfi, mom Lynne Spears and Britney’s cousin, then assistant, Alli Sims. Not enough attention was given to this important part of the story where the police arrive in the 1:00 am hour to take a calm and understanding Britney into a new hold. While the ending of the special makes clear that Spears family members were contacted and chose not to participate, it doesn’t mention Alli’s name and she has done interviews with lesser-known outlets. It was a missed opportunity not only to not dive into these details, but also to not have Alli on to describe what she witnessed that night.
Lou Taylor and Tristar Sports & Entertainment Group
You may have noticed some of the posters at the Free Britney rallies had the names “Lou Taylor” and “Tristar” on them. Funnily enough, the special mentions Lynne Spears’ book, Through the Storm, but omits Taylor’s reported involvement in the formation of the conservatorship. In Lynne’s own words, Lou played a key role and Lindsay Lohan’s father took actions to block her from trying to set up a similar legal structure over his daughter.
Lou Taylor and her entertainment group were likely omitted because she has taken legal action against two vocal fans so far. The timeline of events, however, are highly suspicious. She started speaking on behalf of Britney Spears in media interviews almost immediately after the conservatorship was put in place. Like Andrew Wallet, she also felt the need to suddenly resign last winter as the heat intensified in the Free Britney movement.
Another name you may have noticed on a protest sign or two, Larry Rudolph was Britney’s manager from the beginning of her pop music career. When the special mentions her firing a manager in 2004, this is who they’re talking about. His name appears once in text in the special and while Larry Rudolph doesn’t have a paper trail to the conservatorship, he has raised a lot of concern amongst fans. Circumstantially, he re-entered the picture after Jamie Spears removed Sam Lutfi from Britney’s life. He has also made several alarming comments about Britney in interviews, but the biggest question is what did Larry Rudolph know and when did he know it? Known in the fan community as “Lurking Larry,” he is often seen in corners behind Britney during interviews. Former MTV VJ Dave Holmes made a comment about what interviewing Britney is like post-conservatorship, with a watchful figure always present, and Carson Daily (not interviewed in the special) had first hand exposure to her pre and post conservatorship, publicly speaking out about it. Not even mentioning his name, let alone not seeking out other interviewers of Britney during the past twelve years, was yet another missed opportunity. At the end, his name is listed amongst those contacted who chose not to participate.
Further Developing Jamie’s Character
If one of the strengths of the special was laying the groundwork for Britney’s strained relationship with her father Jamie, it also fails to follow up on it. For starters, it doesn’t even mention his divorce from Lynn, which happened during the early years of Britney’s fame, or how his behavior dismantled her labels attempts to depict them as your typical American Southern family. It states that Kevin Federline issued a restraining order against Jamie as recently as 2019, but doesn’t go into the specifics about why it was needed, allegedly or factually. Beyond the failed business ventures and struggles with alcohol abuse, it doesn’t paint a good picture of who Britney’s father is as a person now, over twenty years after Britney Spears became a household name. It mentions that the public statement for the cancellation of Britney’s second Las Vegas residency was due to concerns over her father’s colon surgery, but he was seen at a wedding in Alabama in March of that year while Britney was missing from public view and later revealed to have been in a wellness facility. He was also seen out fishing in April that year, shortly after the Britney’s Gram episode with the anonymous voice message was released. That voice message claimed that the real reason for the cancellation of the residency was Britney’s refusal to work under Jamie’s control and these outings seem to support that claim as he doesn’t seem ill enough to warrant cancelling all work obligations over. None of this information is hard to find, so why wasn’t it included?
Britney as a Mom
This is the part that really breaks my heart. You see how the paparazzi created a chaotic environment for a new mom with very young kids, but aside from a few fleeting glimpses of her life on Instagram, the topic isn’t really discussed. I would argue that given the title of the special, “Framing Britney Spears,” it doesn’t really fit the narrative. Except that the narrative talks a lot about her losing her rights to her kids. By all accounts, her world revolves around her two sons and she’s openly talked about wanting more kids someday. On top of that, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that she may actually be among the best moms of all time (proof, proof). From taking math classes to help her kids with their homework to getting into the anime shows they love to watch, she’s willing to do anything for them. Sadly, it is presumed that the conservatorship actually blocks Britney from being allowed to have custody beyond her current visitation rights as in the eyes of the court, she’s not legally able to look after herself, let alone two minors.
While the special isn’t perfect, there was a lot to cram into a 72-minute runtime. My hope is that through FX and Hulu viewers, new eyes are now watching Britney’s case. Maybe people tuned in thinking they were going to see a story about a famous woman who went off the rails and needed a team of men to put her life back on track, but that’s not the truth of Britney’s story, nor is it what The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears reveals. Anyone who saw #FreeBritney trending and thought it was a joke or a conspiracy theory is likely now convinced that there is at least a case for letting Britney have her autonomy back. And with years of potential legal tape to unravel to ever be free of the conservatorship, more public pressure on the court system to do the right thing can only be helpful. In the end, this might not be the definitive documentary we need, but it’s a good start.