Review of “Tell Them You Love Me” – this essential and thought-provoking documentary is a must-watch on television.
Obtaining sexual consent is crucial, but it can be complicated. Even when power dynamics, sobriety, willingness, gender roles, racial biases, and societal pressures are not factors, there is still the potential for human error and misunderstandings. This is particularly concerning because obtaining explicit consent is not only about satisfying one’s partner, but also about protecting oneself. In this documentary, it becomes evident that this is especially true in situations involving Black men and white women, as Black men and boys have historically been portrayed as hypersexual and predatory. The disturbing case of Derrick Johnson and Anna Stubblefield highlights how the sexual abuse of a non-verbal, disabled Black man by his white caregiver could be manipulated into an innocent misunderstanding.
The film Tell Them You Love Me, produced by Louis Theroux’s company, uses his well-known anti-socratic approach. This allows the individuals being filmed to speak without interruption and sometimes reveal damaging details about themselves. One of the featured stories is that of Derrick Johnson, who experienced seizures as a baby. According to his brother Dr John Johnson, Derrick was diagnosed as non-verbal and mentally challenged with cerebral palsy as a young child. Their father left the family shortly after, but Derrick’s mother and brother remained devoted to him and believed he was trying to communicate with them. However, things take a surprising turn when John begins his PhD at Rutgers University and watches a lecture by Anna Stubblefield on non-verbal disabilities. John becomes convinced that Stubblefield’s methods could unlock hidden potential in his brother, not knowing that she would soon engage in a “romantic” and sexual relationship with Derrick.
Initially, Tell Them You Love Me takes a detached approach, with the involved parties sharing their perspectives on the events. However, as the story progresses, the legal case sheds light on broader societal issues of ingrained bias. The distressing account of abuse is further complicated by testimony from witnesses and experts who suggest that Derrick may have lacked the ability to give consent, and yet still struggle to view the accused, a well-educated white woman of middle-class status, as a perpetrator of sexual violence. Dr. Howard Shane clarifies that Derrick had the mental capacity of a young infant and that his consent, obtained through his “communication facilitator” Stubblefield, was essentially just her “talking to herself.” Nevertheless, he maintains that he never saw her as a predator, as she genuinely believed her actions were in Derrick’s best interest.
Even if we consider this statement of being in love as a result of a delusion, there is still a victim in the form of young Derrick Johnson. It is difficult to witness Dr. John Johnson’s account of discovering bruises, scrapes, and permanent scars on his brother’s small body after engaging in rough sexual activity on a mat in Stubblefield’s office. Stubblefield continues to hold onto her belief that their relationship was consensual and loving, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When questioned about any doubts, she confidently responds with a firm “Never.”
The depiction of facilitated communication for non-verbal individuals in Tell Them You Love Me is as thought-provoking as an analysis of white privilege and female victimhood. Stubblefield is consistently assumed to have good intentions, even when she tells Derrick’s mother, Daisy, that she is in a romantic relationship with him and he is now fully a man. This causes Daisy to feel the need to restrain herself in order to avoid being seen as an angry Black woman who doesn’t know what’s best for her son. Stubblefield, on the other hand, sees herself as harmless and is unable to understand why her past actions, such as leaving messages for the Johnson family saying she would “sign my name in blood” to be with Derrick, could be seen as ominous.
Apart from the legal system, there is a noticeable absence of individuals in the documentary who hold Stubblefield accountable. The only exceptions are her former spouse, who testifies in court that she is a “pathological liar and narcissist,” and the level-headed Dr. Johnson, who states, “That woman did not care about my brother.” What is intriguing about the documentary is how intelligently and sensitively it addresses numerous topics in under two hours. In addition to consent, disability, and race, there is also reflection on the nature of language, the “white savior” complex, the purpose of justice, and what defines unconditional love. While Tell Them You Love Me may be difficult to watch, it is also an essential one.
The documentary Tell Them You Love Me was shown on Sky Documentaries and can now be accessed on Now.