In 2021, sorority rush season at the University of Alabama enraptured viewers on TikTok as potential new members (called PNMs for short) offered a look behind the scenes at their attempts to join their top-pick houses. During the phenomenon that came to be known on TikTok as Bama Rush, young female students would upload their OOTD (outfit of the day) videos and tell viewers where they purchased each piece of clothing or accessory they were wearing.
It all seemed like harmless fun until TikTok users caught wind of something called “The Machine” as more users started uploading videos about an elusive group of people at the University of Alabama. This ominous name refers to a mysterious presence that is said to loom over Greek life in Alabama. A few users attempted to explain what it was while all of this was trending on the app, but Bama Rush, a new documentary out today on HBO’s newly rebranded streaming service Max, takes a deeper look into its mechanics.
The history of a Southern sorority
The documentary is centered around a group of women who are planning to rush sororities at the University of Alabama. They give the documentary crew unfiltered access to the process, talking about the traditions and the process leading up to the moment when rush begins. Viewers get a short history of sororities and the rushing process, how it became known as such, and why it’s such a big deal to these women: for many of these women—all of whom are white, with the exception of one Black woman—it’s a crucial status symbol.
The documentary discusses how the rush process has evolved over time (spoiler alert: not much). Especially when they are accepted into a sorority, these women still have to follow an extremely strict set of rules. The documentary’s first half is a light-hearted look at this trend that took over social media, but the tone shifts significantly when the potential new members were asked about “The Machine.”
“We can’t talk about it”
When director Rachel Fleit asks four of her subjects if they knew what social media was saying about “The Machine,” the tone of the interviews completely changes. The interviewees appear visibly uncomfortable. Two of the women decline to comment, with one telling Fleit, “We can’t talk about it; it would ruin a lot of stuff for us, even our lives.” Following their silence, the documentary then gives the floor to someone who will talk: John Archibald, a University of Alabama alumnus, class of 1986, who says that the Machine helped him get his start in life.
According to the documentary, the Machine is “a secret society” named Theta Nu Epsilon, comprised of representatives from different sororities and fraternities on campus. They meet in fraternity basements, per a student government associate justice named Garrett who appears in the film, and vote on elected school representatives, then bring the information back to their houses and tell their members how to vote.
Their motto, according to allegedly leaked documents shown in the documentary “claiming to be the 2016 constitution of Theta Nu Epsilon,” is “Little is known, and what is known is kept secret.” Garrett says that this omnipresent fellowship is synonymous with Greek life on the university campus. They allegedly rig elections on campus, with homecoming kings and queens, awards, and jobs all going to the members of this secret society.
“An oppressive system”
One of the former Machine members featured in the film, Alex Smith, wrote an exposé in the campus newspaper in 2015 titled “Rage Against the Machine,” which explained why she wanted to leave what she called “an oppressive system.” In the documentary, Smith says that “only a handful of independent candidates have successfully gone against The Machine and beat them” to become Student Government Association (SGA) presidents. She goes on to say that the school had to shut down the SGA for three years from 1993 to 1996 “because of The Machine’s alleged activities,” as the doc shows an Associated Press headline referencing the 1993 attack that reads, “University Closes Student Government After Attack on Candidate.”
The film also sheds light on text from the University of Alabama’s 1993 yearbook that detailed an alleged attack on a candidate named Minda Riley (it’s not clear if she was a non-Machine candidate). “A masked assailant attacked Riley in her home,” it reads, going on to describe her injuries: a bruised cheek, busted lip, and knife wound to the face. One of the ominous quotes: “You f-ck with the wrong people, you get f-cked.”
According to Archibald, the Machine has been responsible for putting a system in place to ensure that a small group of people enjoy special treatment on campus because they came from affluent backgrounds and had a special advantage over everyone else. “It’s a way better teacher of how to do nefarious things for power than you could ever get in a political science class.”
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