The timing couldn’t be better for “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” a celebratory but clear-eyed documentary history of the 1970s women’s movement. Campus rape and sexual assault are topics of agonized national conversations, women are the subjects of horrific online abuse, reproductive rights are being rolled back, and inequality of pay remains a reality, as Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette recently reminded us. The word “feminism” itself has become toxified. For young women who might be despairing as they fight the good fight, this film provides context, roots, and the wisdom of elders.
Directed in workmanlike fashion by Maine native Mary Dore — she resorts to unconvincing re-enactments in a few places — “She’s Beautiful” assembles a charismatic cast of troublemakers, graying but unbowed. The better-known talking heads include writer Susan Brownmiller, theorist Kate Millett, the late cultural critic Ellen Willis, and radical lesbian Rita Mae Brown, who’s the closest the movement came to having its own Abbie Hoffman and who’s still funny as hell. But the most moving and revealing testimony comes from the less familiar names: Jo Freeman, Heather Booth, Fran Beal, Marilyn Webb, Mary Jean Collins, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and on and on. These were the folks in the trenches, publishing and organizing, protesting and effecting change.
And change things they did. One of the more salutary sidelights of Dore’s documentary is reminding viewers of how lopsided the gender scales were in the “Mad Men” era that preceded the birth of the women’s movement. It wasn’t merely the help-wanted ads seeking “good-looking secretaries” or a medical establishment that kept women in the dark about their own bodies. Even the ’60s counterculture was mired in chauvinism; one of the film’s more unnerving pieces of archival footage shows Webb getting viciously heckled during a protest rally by supposedly broad-minded hippie dudes.
It was up to women to fight their own battles, so they did, emerging from civil rights and anti-war protests to champion their own cause. “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” dashes around the country charting the rise of discrete movements — WITCH and the Redstockings in New York, the Magic Quilt in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco feminist newspaper It Ain’t Me Babe, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the Boston Women’s Health Collective that created the groundbreaking bestseller “Our Bodies, Ourselves” — and their fractious coalescing into a national movement.
Dore covers the salient issues and the dramas behind them: the “Jane” support network for abortions at a time when the procedure was still illegal, the push for a childcare bill that actually got results in Congress and a 1972 veto from President Nixon who said it would weaken the American family. Most important, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” is honest about the flaws and stress-fractures of the movement. Women of color and the poor were marginalized, lesbian activists initially muzzled. An idealistic emphasis on leaderless organizations only resulted in natural leaders like Webb and Freeman getting kicked out (repeatedly, in the latter’s case).
Such forthright disclosures keep the documentary on the side of history and save it from becoming a tract. Toward the end, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” connects the dots between suffragettes of the past and the young activists of today, noting with cold logic how little has changed. “The bitter lesson is that no victories are permanent,” says Virginia Whitehill, who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court and now sees her home state of Texas doing all it can to reverse the tide. Other interviewees sound the charge. “You can’t tell me you can’t change the world,” says Mary Jean Collins, “because I saw it happen.”
Dore’s film should be seen. Take your daughters. And your sons.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.