Now, travel back to 1969. That year, activist Marilyn Webb took the podium at an antiwar rally and began to speak about women defining their own issues. Men—anti-Nixon leftists—booed and catcalled her. "Take her off the stage and fuck her!" some yelled. "Fuck her down a dark alley!"
Yes, it's an imprecise comparison. For one thing, Webb wasn't a pop megastar in bedazzled spandex, rather a 26-year-old with a mop of curly hair. But Beyoncé's performance is still testament to the progress women have made over the past half-century—not just in terms of publicly proclaiming themselves feminists, of course, but also in terms of workplace equality, reproductive rights and sexual violence. This is one of many accomplishments of She's Beautiful When She's Angry, a wise and fiercely watchable documentary about second-wave feminism: It makes plain the immense debt we owe the activists of the late '60s and early '70s. With its blend of archival footage and new interviews, it's a stirring, illuminating and sometimes upsetting portrait of a movement. Most of all, the film reminds us change isn't inexorable: People make it happen.
For those less familiar with their history, Mary Dore's film serves as an excellent primer. It roams from the electrifying impact of The Feminine Mystique to the founding of the National Organization for Women to the massive marches for equality in August 1970. Dore tells the origin story of women's health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves. She recounts how a scrappy abortion-referral service sprang up in a Chicago dorm room. There's some delightful footage of the "First National Ogle-In," when women strolled Wall Street and whistled at bankers. Prominent activists—Ruth Rosen, Rita Mae Brown, Portlander Judith Arcana—appear in present-day interviews, and Dore cuts poignantly to footage of these women as impassioned 20-somethings. (Less successful are some of the awkward—but mercifully brief—re-enactments.)
As Dore shows us protests, street theater and consciousness-raising meetings, the effect is to be thoroughly transported back to a heady time when "the personal is political" was a revelatory statement rather than a bumper-sticker slogan. This is another success of the film: It makes clear how new and tenuous this all was. Racial schisms arose, often around issues of reproductive justice—for Puerto Rican women who'd faced forced sterilization or black women who feared abortion as an instrument of genocide, the right to have children was just as vital as the right not to. There were concerns about the "Lavender Menace"—lesbians—making the movement unpalatable, as well as discord between more conservative and radical factions.
It's a lot for a single film to contain. Yet Dore does an admirable job of not oversimplifying, even if her film could splinter off into a half-dozen other documentaries. I, for one, nominate local filmmaker/former rock star Beth Harrington to dig into the history of the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, which belted songs about lascivious bosses, rejecting marriage and wearing pants to work. Speaking of music, the generation-spanning soundtrack here is excellent and feisty: Janis Joplin, Cat Power, Nico, Bikini Kill.
For all the gains, there's no pretending the job is done. "The bitter lesson is that no victories are permanent," says one of the activists. As grateful as we should be that The New York Times will never again advertise for a secretary "with good figure," Dore bookends her film with recent protests against rollbacks of reproductive rights in Texas. It's hard not to watch and think about areas where we still lag: comprehensive child care, or trans rights, or the widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases on college campuses. Like the new civil rights drama, Selma, She's Beautiful is both a celebration and cautionary tale. And like Selma, She's Beautiful gives credit where it's due: to the radical thinkers and fearless organizers and on-the-ground activists who persisted against the odds. "You can't convince me you can't change the world," says former NOW leader Mary Jean Collins. âI saw it happen.â
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: She's Beautiful When She's Angry opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.