The word feminism dates back to the late 19th Century, it is of French origins, but it didn’t enter the popular vocabulary until the 1960s when women from San Francisco to Boston to Chicago, and everywhere in between, decided that it was high time to start waving the feminism banner. To borrow a line from Howard Beale, they were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, opening this Friday at the Landmark Chez Artiste, is a documentary about the woman who brought feminism into the open square during the height of 1960s activism. They published newspapers, held rallies, burned bras and college degrees, picketed in the streets, etc. Anything and everything they could think of, they did, and it worked.
Equality was the main talking point, but the women’s liberation movement was also about obtaining control — control over their bodies, their health care, their sexuality, their careers, etc. Wrapped in sexual politics, the movement gave a voice to lesbianism as well as a sexual freedom and self-discovery (one woman admits that even though women were participating the 60s free love, many weren’t actually enjoying it). Out of this came modern birth control, which activist Virginia Whitehall equates as the most important development in the women’s movement, second only to the vote.
The modern women’s movement attracted a lot of attention, allowed women everywhere an outlet, as well as shaping the way young women saw the world and what was possible for them. The movement continues to this day, but She’s Beautiful isn’t about the birth of a movement, but the continuation, one that may never end, but must never die out.
Director Mary Dore documents this period (1966-71) with admiration and a sense of history, connecting the modern women’s movement to NOW (National Organization for Women) to W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!) and providing a look at how contemporary America has been shaped. As one of the activist, Susan Brownmiller puts it, “They don’t like to admit, in The United States, that change happens, because radicals force it.”
Brownmiller’s smiling today, but back in 1966, she was downright angry. So were the other twenty-plus subjects interviewed for She’s Beautiful. Women like Muriel Fox, Ellen Willis, Virginia Whitehall, Karla Jay, Carol Giardina, Linda Burnham and many more.
As far as subject matter is concerned, She’s Angry When She’s Beautiful is informative, timely and important. But as a piece of cinema, She’s Beautiful is pedestrian at best. The movie moves chronologically using interviews to tell the story of the members and the movement. These interviews are bolstered by archival material — and the occasional, and ill-advised, re-enactment — but as compelling as this footage may be, it is always used in secondary role. Talking heads may inform, but they lack real compulsion to keep this, otherwise important, material from truly engaging the viewer.