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Directors: Edwin Scharlau, Katie Carmichael, and Penny Edmiston
Editor: Walter J. Collins
Mary Ward is a devoted mother to her children and has primary custody of her youngest daughter Cassey. John Ward is Cassey’s father and doesn’t know what school or grade she is in. Mary Ward is three-times divorced and in a committed relationship with Marjorie. John Ward has also been married three times and has just started his fourth marriage with Rita. John Ward was not divorced three times; his first marriage ended in murder. In his own cool words he describes how he arranged a meeting with his first wife, shot her three times, stood over her as she pleaded for her life, shot her three more times, reloaded, and shot her again six more times. In 1995, Judge Tarbuck in Pensacola, Florida, deemed Mary Ward unfit to raise Cassey. He awarded custody to John Ward even though he was behind in child support and had only spent at most four continuous days with her in the past five years at any one time. Judge Tarbuck’s only reason, “I want to give this child a chance to grow-up in a non-lesbian world.”
Mary, who defined herself by being a good mother, was crushed. Though she was aided by multiple legal organizations during the appeal, she lost. Due to the mounting stress & depression from her continuing legal battles, she died from a heart attack at forty-seven. John, with Mary’s inheritance, moved Cassey to her own trailer. There she quickly became pregnant and dropped-out of school before her eighteenth birthday.
When deciding custody of children, judges are meant to look after the “best interest of the child”. Mary’s other children became a police officer, a social worker, a businesswomen. Cassey became a drop-out and teenage mother. Whose “best interest” was served when John was given custody? Cassey’s or the judge’s prejudice?
UNFIT: Ward vs. Ward is a well-crafted documentary that overcomes many obstacles: very few archival Mary Ward interviews, lack of cooperation from John Ward and the judges who ruled in his favor, and a heavy dependence on talking-head interviews. Through current day interviews with her children, friends, and partner, as well as old family photos & video, Mary Ward is shown to be a loving and caring parent and a person that you identify with. John Ward and the judges stories are presented through archival news footage and television appearances on the Geraldo Show and Good Morning America, as well as an interview with Ted Stokes–his attorney during the custody case. Talking-head interviews are intercut with visuals and accompanied with pertinent music & songs.
The documentary is also well paced, never feeling overlong. Throughout the film, you learn & care more about the people involved and the aftermath of Judge Tarbuck’s decision in their lives. Also, as the film moves forward you begin to wonder what happened to Cassey – where is she? why haven’t we heard from her yet? And then she is revealed; releasing our tension and curiosity about her side of the story. The directors and editor also introduce a bit of levity to an otherwise somber film by demonstrating some of the ridiculous observations used during the court case against Mary: such as Cassey preferring the smell of Brut, a men’s cologne, over a perfume.
Leaving the documentary you feel shocked this actually happened. You feel angry that someone abused their position of power to inflict their prejudice onto the “best interest” of the child. And more importantly, you leave feeling something needs to be done so this does not happen again.
Grade = A