Dec 1, 2014

Women Getting Angry: This Year's Best Documentary

This is just one of the many emotionally-charged archival photos that appear in the new documentary, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, opening on Friday, December 5th. To find screenings in your area, go to the official website:
Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a homage to the women whose intelligence and persistence led to most radical social reforms of the 20th century. And it all started here, in the United States. Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (1949) notwithstanding, it was American women who first took to the streets for women’s rights, who shut down Congress, forced the Supreme Court to decide on a woman’s right to choose, compelled law enforcement to view rape as a violent crime, and burned their college degrees to protest the dearth of women’s history and literature in college curricula. The burning of bras and girdles followed, a symbolic relinquishment of standard concepts of beauty: The cry went out in 1970 that all women were beautiful and, as Dore suggests in this excellent documentary, even more so when they channel their anger.

Dore’s title is a twist on the condescending line used by men to minimize the effect of women’s anger. The filmmaker opens on a contemporary protest in front of the Texas state house in Austin. A speaker shouts, “Don’t mess with Texas women,” a play on that state’s unofficial slogan. Texas is “messing” with a woman’s right to choose, in defiance of federal law. Next, Virginia Whitehall, the founder of the first woman’s shelter in Dallas, and the daughter of a charter member of the League of Women Voters, delivers the documentary’s call to action: “You are not allowed to retire from women’s issues.”

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry then moves to its lively, deftly edited mélange (accomplished by co-producer Nancy Kennedy) of archival film and photos, and interviews of its female subjects, all to the accompaniment of an expertly mixed score of women’s voices (by supervising sound editor Deborah Wallach and re-recording mixer Sean Garnhart) that highlights a variety of protest songs from the 1970s.

Among the women who appear in the documentary are iconic feminist leaders, such as author and educator Kate Millet (“Sexual Politics,” 1969), journalist and author Susan Brownmiller (“Against Our Will,” 1975), the founder of NOW, Jacqui Ceballos, and celebrated District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who in 1970 became the most prominent feminist in New York City after being appointed by Mayor John Lindsay to head the Human Rights Commission. Lesser-known but equally influential women also appear in the film, including Fran Beal, co-founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee who in 1969 wrote what came to be known as the Black women’s feminist manifesto, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.”

The breadth of Dore’s research distinguishes this documentary, but so does its frank illustration of the movement’s history. While the filmmaker celebrates American feminism, she does not elide the rifts, such as the one between the more conservative National Organization for Women, and the radical Students for a Democratic Society or W.I.T.C.H., the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, known for their street theater performances and their hexes on oppressive capitalist institutions. Dore also illustrates the debates between the largely white, secular, middle-class feminist movement that was seeking abortion rights, and minority Black women, many of whom had strong religious beliefs and who, as one activist puts it, worked in other women’s kitchens. They were also grappling with class and race discrimination. Mary Jean Collins, head of Chicago’s NOW chapter, describes the divide that eventually arose between younger women and the movement’s older founding members.

This broad, historical approach of the feminist movement also includes wonderful private moments with its subjects, such as the one with Heather Booth, the underground abortion clinic founder of JANE. Booth reminds us that the aphorism, “the personal is political,” which obviously holds great meaning for her, was coined by the women’s movement. Congresswoman Holmes Norton recalls, with heartfelt regret, the day that President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development bill in 1972, which would have established a national day care system. Gay women feminists speak of their feelings of belonging, even while having to remain closeted, and stay-at-home moms, such as Alice Wolfson, voice similar conflicting feelings, especially Wolfson says, when she was criticized for having to take her children to consciousness raising sessions.

More than forty years after the start of the feminist movement, the 2012 U.S. Census indicated that women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men; for Black women, that figure is 69 cents and for Latinas 58 cents. Working mothers are still struggling to pay for child care. At this writing, some American sportscasters are debating whether a football player who beats his wife should be suspended from the sport. While She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry represents a delightful backward glance for those of us empowered by those years of solidarity, it should be seen by everyone under 50 for whom it is not living memory—especially by young women. As Dore suggests, it is time to get angry again, especially in Texas.