In February 2021, FX released their latest episode of “The New York Times Presents.” The episode, “Framing Britney Spears,” sought to dive deep into the shadowy machinations of the conservatorship pop superstar Britney Spears has been under for the past 13 years. It’s a story New York Times’ Senior Story Editor Liz Day had long wanted to tell going back to her first day at the company in 2018.
“It’s just such an American saga,” Day said in an interview with IndieWire. “[It] tells us so much about fame and wealth, power and the legal system, and family.”
Day, like countless others who have followed Spears’ life, said she couldn’t understand how a woman could be deemed unfit to feed and clothe herself while making millions of dollars appearing on TV shows and going on a world tour.
“The pitch in a nutshell was, ‘What if we do ‘O.J.: Made in America’ but for Britney Spears,’” said Day.
That pitch paid off. Not only is “Framing Britney Spears” now nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Documentary but, more importantly, Spears herself might be closer to the freedom she’s sought since 2014. Since the documentary’s release, Spears has come forward with claims of conservatorship abuse and has finally been allowed to hire her own attorney who is moving forward with plans to remove Spears’ father, James Spears, from the conservatorship — and possibly end it entirely. Neither Day nor director Samantha Stark want audiences to believe their documentary is the reason, though.
“Britney is the catalyst for this happening herself,” said Stark. Spears said in court last month, that much of why she failed to come forward with her story earlier was the presumption that no one would believe her. “What I hope our reporting and our film [did] is bolster her story with facts,” Stark said.
Much of the New York Times’ reporting, according to Day, is focused on doing stories that not just hold the public interest but would hold power to account, which neither woman saw happening in Spears’ case. But when Spears was given the chance to have her own counsel it surprised Day.
“I was expecting at the last court hearing for there to be a battle over whether or not Britney could hire a lawyer of her own choosing, but there wasn’t. The judge allowed it to happen,” said Day. “I was kind of surprised by that and I wonder whether [it was] perhaps because of all the public scrutiny.”
The added pressure of the #FreeBritney movement also can’t be denied, and it was something the documentary made a point of treating with respect. Stark explained she wanted to step back and legitimize the questions Spears’ fans had been asking and it’s hard not to see the proof in the pudding now.
The questions sparked by Spears’ case have been varied and in the last year, especially, it’s kickstarted a discussion about conservatorship law, most of which affects the elderly and people with disabilities. When the documentary aired in February, it was hard not to be disappointed at how “Framing Britney Spears” failed to discuss the grander implications of Spears’ case and how it affects the disabled community. It was something that Day admits was eye-opening for her.
“When I first started, I was sort of familiar with [conservatorships] as a concept, protecting people who are needing protection or are deemed vulnerable in some way,” she said. “The deeper I got into it the more that I learned from experts within that community that it’s a lot more complicated. […] They should be applied only as a last resort.”
Day said doing the documentary has raised the question of whether conservatorships are working at all in the way they’re intended.
“If this can happen [to] Britney Spears’ situation — a very well-known, very wealthy person — what does that mean for the over 1 million people in conservatorships, including those with disabilities, across America?” Day said. Stark said, if anything, Spears gave the issues surrounding conservatorship law extreme visibility. She said lawyers have mentioned to her how they’ve tried for years to get people to pay attention to conservatorship issues, and that Spears’ case has finally brought it into the limelight.
Stark wonders, though, how much of that reticence to examine the problem is because it involves disabled people? “We’re looking for conflicts of interest and holes in the system,” she said. “And there are so many of them we’re finding that it seems like there would be more oversight, possibly if it wasn’t people with disabilities, because our society is not paying attention.”
With Spears still engaging in court cases for the foreseeable future, Hollywood is still trying to make the most of her, with Netflix allegedly in the process of making their own Spears’ documentary. Stark and Day have both said there’s plenty of material to make a follow-up film. Day said she did wish “Framing Britney Spears” could have gone deeper into examining the financial elements of Spears’ conservatorship, but they couldn’t. Both Stark and Day agree the real story of interest should come from Britney herself.
“A conclusion of all of this will be one day for Britney to be able to tell her story, or write her book, or whatever,” said Day. That’s not to say Day and Stark wouldn’t be honored if Spears chose them as a vessel to tell her story, but both admit that Spears has spent so much of her life having others choose her narrative that the only right way to see a light at the end of the tunnel is for the pop princess to do it herself. As Spears said in court recently, she’s eager to set the record straight and only time will tell.
“Framing Britney Spears” is available to watch on Hulu
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