Gloria Allred is tireless. The 76-year-old attorney has been fighting for the rights of women and people from underserved communities for over 40 years. And she’s not stopping anytime soon. Her quest fuels her, prompts her to wake early and go to sleep late, and it prevents her from having much of a private life. “I’m sad that I do have to sleep,” she said. “Because I could be doing so much more if I didn’t have to.”
This commitment to pursuing justice at all costs, including her trademark, televised press conferences, has made her a divisive figure in the public landscape, often portrayed in the media as an attention-seeking firebrand looking for a payday. But that perception is effectively debunked in the new Netflix documentary Seeing Allred, which premieres Friday, and chronicles Allred’s evolution from inner-city English school teacher in Philadelphia to fiery, fearless civil-rights attorney.
The film sheds light on Allred’s drive, her never-ending quest to give voice to powerless women and dispels the sexist myth that her publicity-centric methods are for her own personal, financial gain.
“Gloria Allred works harder than anyone I know,” said Roberta Grossman, one of the two directors of the film. “If [money] was the motivating factor, she could roll up the carpet and go home. She clearly has enough money that she doesn’t need to work for the rest of her life.”
Fresh off a weeklong trip that sent her to North Dakota and Minneapolis for case work, and then on to Miami to speak at the National Trial Lawyers Conference—before hitting New York for film promotional duties—Allred sits high atop the center of Los Angeles in her 15th-floor office for an interview.
She is surrounded by reminders of what’s at stake.
In one corner of the room sits an English Bobby Police uniform from the 1920s, adorned with a pair of handcuffs conspicuously placed on the belt loop. Allred tells me she bought the handcuffs in England years ago to remind her—and really, anyone who walks into her office—that these were the very shackles used by the police to take suffragettes to jail when they were out in the street protesting for their right to vote.
Across the room sits a tattered copy of Midge Mackenzie’s book Shoulder to Shoulder, which chronicles the suffragette movement, and was later turned into a BBC miniseries. Allred said she met Mackenzie back in the 1970s, soon after she started practicing law, and the author inspired Allred to pursue her life’s work. Next to the book is a large photograph of Allred and Hillary Clinton, a daily reminder of how close she came to witnessing the first elected female president, and how much more work needs to be done.
“I still believe we will have a woman president,” she said. “I think she’ll be a feminist woman president, and I hope I’m alive to see it. But If I’m not, [I know] we’re still on the path.”
Allred constantly peppers her speech with witticisms from the movement, thoughts that aren’t just catchy sayings but inspirations that seem to resonate with her deeply.
When she starts talking about the common woman, she backs away, saying how much she dislikes the term common. Then immediately she ushers in a quote: “The common woman is as common as the common loaf of bread and she shall rise.” Or when asked about the disappointment of the presidential election, she touts: “They can break our hearts, but they can’t break our spirit.”
Moments of introspection from Allred aren’t hard to come by, whether it’s from asking for her reaction to the film (“I hope it will inspire women around the world to say, ‘I can speak out. I don’t have to suffer in silence. I don’t have to live in fear’”) or how it feels when she is criticized, as she has often been during her lengthy career.
“I have perspective. I know what the suffragettes went through, which is far worse than any attacks I have ever been the target of,” she said. “Also, my perspective is that those who name-call don’t have a good argument against what I’m advocating. If there’s name-calling, [saying] four-letter words, or discussing women’s genitals, to me they might as well just haul up the white flag of surrender.”
Documentary filmmakers Sophie Sartain and Grossman spent two years trying to gain Allred’s trust and earn access into her life. “She’s got an incredible life story. It’s dramatic and compelling, and she’s been involved in these high-profile cases for four decades. Once we read her book, it was a no-brainer that somebody had to make a film about this woman,” said Sartain. “At first she was reluctant. Even though she’s in the public eye a lot, she’s a private person. Any time you embark on an endeavor like that, you have to open yourself up in a way, and that’s a little daunting.”
Allred finally succumbed to the duo’s persistence in 2014 and the women spent three years following Allred around, capturing her work fighting such alleged predators as Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and, most recently, Harvey Weinstein.
Allred wanted the documentary to focus more on her clients, specifically the women she believes have transformed from powerless victims to strong survivors, often united by the opportunity to tell their stories. The documentarians, of course, wanted to uncover what drives Allred.
She compromised. The directors could have a little of her: glimpses of her beachfront home in Malibu, insight into her past, a few details on her two ex-husbands. In exchange, they would highlight the women she defends and illustrate their transformation. “These women, the alleged victims, these are the voices that need to be heard,” said Allred. “I want to inspire and empower others. I want people to know you don’t have to be a lawyer to help win change. That’s what it’s all about.”
In between the dramatic moments with her clients, viewers of the film get to witness Allred trudging alone through airports and dragging her case files through hotel lobbies—intimate moments that illustrate her commitment to the cause. In one powerful scene, the filmmakers ask Allred about her second husband, William Allred, who was accused of defrauding the government in 1987. She sits quietly and refuses to give an answer.
“It might be a little hard for me to watch myself not wanting to say something, but I still don’t want to say anything, so nothing’s changed,” she said, before breaking into her signature smile. “I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
Added Grossman, “It’s not hidden in the film that she’s reluctant to talk about herself on the personal level. . . . We tried mightily. She allowed us to be intimate in her life by just being present. But she’s very media savvy. There wasn’t another way we could ask the question that was going to surprise her or make her tell us something.”
Today, Allred is even busier than usual. Fighting for women’s rights long before the #MeToo movement, Allred and her law firm are getting more e-mails than ever. And she sees the culture changing. “I think there’s been an enormous power shift,” she said. “Now, many victims who have been on the defensive are on the offensive, and many of the accused who have been on the offensive are now on the defensive, waking up every morning, thinking, ‘Oh, am I next?’”
Grossman also sees the culture changing for Allred. “This film comes out at a moment when the zeitgeist has changed,” she said. “And it could be argued that Gloria had a big role in reaching this tipping point. Women are being listened to and believed. But Gloria is also being listened to and believed.”
None of that seems to matter to Allred. In the past few weeks, she’s been attending a slew of screenings of her film and during the Q&As that follow, she likes to end the conversation with her favorite quote, a line from labor activist Mother Jones meant to be more about action than inspiration: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she recites.
“That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.