“Not to be dramatic, but this HBO special could be the end of Greek life as we know it.” This is how Bama Rush begins: with a bold declaration from a young, terminally online woman that is—unfortunately—an utter overestimation. If the repeated exposure of entirely unnecessary death, sexual abuse, and butter torture—yes, you read that correctly—hasn’t brought down the behemoth that is the American fraternity and sorority system, then a one-hour-and-41-minute documentary (which premiered Tuesday on HBO Max) sure as hell won’t.
That said, director Rachel Fleit’s (best known for Introducing, Selma Blair) case study of Greek life—specifically, the now-infamous sorority recruitment—at the University of Alabama is still a compelling, if not thoroughly heart-wrenching, watch. From late 2021 to August 2022, the filmmaker followed four young women (Shelby, Isabelle, Holliday, and Makayla) as they prepared to rush. It’s immediately clear what each one is seeking (spoiler alert: not mixers or white-pillared mansions, but almighty acceptance), but what’s more methodically revealed is just how much they’re willing to compromise for it—or not.
In 2021, as the world continued to reel from a pandemic, #BamaRush was viewed on TikTok over half a billion times globally. It was, as the New York Times wrote, must-see TV. Sure, an uncomfortable majority now know the items essential to every recruit’s purse and the demonic chants sororities seem so fond of, but what the TikTok hashtag remains scant on is the emotional, psychological, and financial toll recruitment has on those ensnared by it. Enter Bama Rush.
First, we meet Shelby, an over-achieving high school senior from Quincy, Illinois. By the age of 18, Shelby’s already competed in pageants, become a decorated dancer, and started a non-profit for foster families in the state. You might think she’s a shoo-in, and you’d be right, of course, though the repeated close-ups of her “I am enough” bracelet indicate that Shelby isn’t quite so certain.
Then there’s Isabelle, a God-fearing California girl who’s so sincere she summons to mind all the parts of you that were mutilated by life sometime after you turned 18. “I’ve always needed a thing to be a part of as part of like, as my identity,” she tells us. “It’s been really hard for me to find like, a sense of like, self-worth or pride in something because I feel like I don’t really know who I am, you know?” She’s juxtaposed brilliantly against Holliday, a freshman at Alabama who we meet as she wakes up, shuffles into her roommate’s room, and quite charmingly bemoans of the night before, “I remember doing a tequila shot with this DILF.” Holliday, we learn, was already a member of Greek life...until she was dropped for an inane policy that involves a different sorority’s sticker.
“I thought those people were my very best friends, that it was my home, this is where I belonged.” Even still, she’s chosen to rush once again.
And finally, there’s soft-spoken Makalya, a biracial freshman at the University of Alabama who has yet to determine where she belongs on campus and regrets not rushing the year prior as her friend Holliday had. Regardless, they’ve bonded over rap music and mourning the losses of their fathers.
But Bama Rush isn’t all human interest stories. There are brief history lessons on the origins of sororities in the South—much of which is already familiar, even for someone like me who couldn’t be more removed from the South or sorority culture. Institutional racism is also touched on, though it certainly deserved more time and testimony. What’s also eyebrow-raising is Fleit’s annoyingly fleeting inclusion of “The Machine,” a coalition of select fraternities and sororities that was once shrouded in secrecy but now wields serious power on campus and beyond.
“The Machine systematically made sure that a minority group on campus of elite people who got special treatment, who lived in special homes, who came from the most affluent and powerful families got an advantage on everyone else,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald explains. “The danger is not belonging.”
Nearing the end of the documentary, Fleit finds that there are perhaps two machines in Alabama, the first comprised of said elite students and those who wish they were. As rush approaches, Isabelle and Makalya work diligently with consultants (read: former sorority girls who now profit from prospective sorority girls’ pursuit of friendship); Holliday exercises and diets to the point of counting out 10 tortilla chips before putting them in a bowl; and Shelby organizes her rush outfits via Google slides. A rumor about the ethics of Fleit’s production goes viral; “F*ck your documentary” T-shirts go on sale; Fleit tries on a disguise for size; and Shelby promptly stops filming.
“You don’t want to go up against the university of Alabama,” one elderly TikToker comments on the matter. She may very well be right, but Fleit persists until bid day. In a surprise twist, Makalya and Holliday choose to remove themselves from the process. Though it’s not explicitly presented as such, their decision feels like something of a triumph, but no more so than Isabelle’s, who’s even more affirmed by all of the bizarre rush rituals. “At the end of the day, I want best friends,” she tells us. Presenting such opposing realities in a positive way—despite the ample amount of evidence that might insist otherwise—is evidence of Fleit’s empathy. Regardless of how silly, strange, or supremely archaic the viewer might find rushing a sorority, it’s still the preferred method of building bonds for a lot of young women—especially the ones who don’t mind being restricted from discussing the five Bs (Boys, Booze, Bible, Bucks, and Biden) with new friends. (Yes, that’s an unspoken rush policy.)
I never joined a sorority, but I considered it—so much so that I can vividly recall driving the streets of fraternity and sorority homes at Ohio State during rush 2013 just to sneak a peek at all the girls who I pretended to hate but privately admired for their bravery in subjecting themselves to this gauntlet. Adhering to a dress code and teetering up the drives of dens of women just so they can deconstruct you from head to toe behind your back was never going to be for me, but that’s not to say I wasn’t jealous, in a way, of the end result. In a matter of months, they’d have something I struggled to find in college: community.
Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t occasionally hurl insults at them out the window—especially at the ones who got taken to all of the formals by frat boys who preferred to keep their relationships with me (a football-hating, socially awkward women’s studies major) their dirty little secret.
By the end of Bama Rush, I wanted to scream the same thing at my television that I did back then: You’re more interesting than this! Now, though, I think I’d add: There are more dignified ways of making friends!