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Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: She's Beautiful When She's Angry

What is feminism? Why do we have it? Is it still necessary? Was it ever? Get in an argument on any forum online (or in politics, that other great dumping ground of Whomsoever Shouts Loudest, Wins) that involves gender, and these questions will come up. It's hard to answer, in part because feminism has been an evolving series of philosophies reacting to the changing time, as any good ethos is, but as nearly every hardfought victory of women's rights won in the 1960s gets turned back by modern politicians, it's hard not to see the necessity of the movement. All it takes to realize the necessity of the movement is the crowd's reaction in 1966 when activist Marilyn Webb announced - to a group of ultra-liberal anti-war, pro-civil rights protestors! - that they were starting a movement for women's equality, and was met with catcalls and cries like, "Take her off the stage and fuck her!"

In She's Beautiful When She's Angry, filmmaker Mary Dore tackle the early years of feminism, covering roughly 1966 to 1971, and she finds a thousand little anecdotes like this buried in the rise and fall of the movement's origins. The doc covers both the quickly-vanishing outliers, like the goofy-but-fun Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), who laid hexes on misogynists and fought for academic equality, and the groups whose efforts are still being felt today, like the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's creation of the long-running, popular Our Bodies, Ourselves. Perhaps more importantly, however, it covers the reasons why these movements sprung up, and the lasting effects these women had on our nation and our world.

Though the tone of the film is ultimately celebratory, Dore doesn't shy away from the prejudices active within the movement in its early years - and, in some cases, still today. Towards the middle of the film, Dore begins to go into the way the Women's Lib group splintered (perhaps fatally so) as the mostly white mostly middle class leadership of the movement showed reluctance at acknowledging the issues that plagued its black members, its queer members, its poor members. Once N.O.W. (National Organization for Women) began getting national respect, it had a serious crisis on its hand; does it sacrifice that respect and stand up for its homosexual (or black, or any other marginalized group) members, or does it create yet another new class stratification?

The so-called 'lavender menace' wasn't the only break in early women's lib. As the film moves into the 70s, it gets into the complications of trying to imagine a mode of thought that was so radically different from anything else. Was a movement that depended on successful, powerful leaders merely mimicking the patriarchy, recreating oppression? Was it possible to stand out without standing above? And was there anything wrong with either? In some ways, these are all valid questions, exploratory periods necessary to finding a new and perhaps better way of doing things. On the other hand, it led to a lot of infighting and weak leadership that helped push the movement's most passionate voices out of the mainstream.

Even so, the film argues, you should never stop fighting. There's no victory so thoroughly won that the people in power can't take it back from you, as the conservative war on women this past decade has shown. In many ways, She's Beautiful When She's Angry is a documentary companion piece to Selma, illustrating the importance and difficulty of protest and organizing. It even features a brief moment covering J. Edgar Hoover sending spies into women's lib meetings... with the added irony that, since he believed women couldn't be agents, he could only recruit 'informants' who mostly agreed with the women they were watching. Any time you make waves, no matter how righteous your cause, the people in power will be loathe to give any of it up. She's Beautiful When She's Angry is an effective argument of the importance of creative, legal, eye-catching ways to fight back against the system - and the necessity of civilians breaking unjust laws when real human lives were on the line.

Ultimately, She's Beautiful When She's Angry coheres into a powerful love letter to the spirit of protest, arguing that it is the radical who affect change and shape the nation. The history books talk about how women were given the right to vote, women were given the right to reproductive health, women were given the right to equal pay, but that ignores the years, the decades of work from common, everyday people fighting with everything they had to bring attention to injustice. While She's Beautiful When She's Angry is disappointingly conventional in its style, varying between archival footage and talking heads - it lacks the fire that defined the earliest years of the movement - it is nevertheless a powerfully felt story of what we can all do if we just give a shit about one another.

She's Beautiful When She's Angry is in limited release across the nation, and comes to Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema this Friday, February 20th. She's Beautiful When She's Angry was directed by Mary Dore.

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