Review: ‘The Janes,’ starring Heather Booth, Judith Arcana, Marie Leaner, Dorie Barron, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens and Laura Kaplan

June 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1972 photo of Jane members in “The Janes” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Janes”

Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes

Culture Representation: The documentary “The Janes” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the Jane network, a Chicago-based group of mostly women who provided abortion services and counseling before the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level in 1973.

Culture Clash: The Jane network had to be an underground, outlaw group when abortion was illegal, and some members got arrested for homicide in 1972. 

Culture Audience: “The Janes” will appeal primarily to people interested in a fascinating documentary about reproductive rights and people who believe in a woman’s right to choose if or when to have a child.

A 1972 photo of Jane members in “The Janes” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Regardless of how people feel about abortion, “The Janes” documentary is not only a history lesson about what life in America was like before Roe v. Wade but it’s also a compelling reminder of what’s at stake in reproductive rights and family planning. One of the best things about the movie is that it doesn’t give the narrative over to politicians. Instead, the story is told mostly from the perspectives of people who were involved with the Jane network, the Chicago-based underground group that provided abortion services and counseling at a time when abortion was illegal in Illinois and most other states in America.

The Jane network, whose origins began in 1965, disbanded in 1973, when the U.S. Supereme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level. The Jane network got its name because people who needed the services were told to ask for someone with the code name Jane when contacting the network, which advertised through flyers and through word of mouth. The outreach began on college campuses but then extended to many other communities in the Chicago area, including low-income and underprivileged communities.

Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, “The Janes” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary begins with a harrowing personal story told by Dorie Barron, who got two abortions when abortion was illegal. She got the first abortion at a place that turned out to be disreputable: “I just wanted it over with,” Barron says of the abortion. “I had no other options. I was that desperate.”

Barron also remembers that because of the outlaw nature of this procedure: “It was [like] the mob. You had to talk in code.” “Chevy” meant the abortion cost $500. “Cadillac” meant that the abortion cost $750. “Rolls Royce” mean that the abortion cost $1,000.

Barron vividly recalls that as she was waiting to get her abortion that there were “three men and one woman, who brought another patient. They spoke all of three sentences the entire time: ‘Where’s the money? Lie back and do as I tell you. Get in the bathroom.'”

This cold and uncaring attitude wasn’t the worst of her experience though. After the abortion, she and the other abortion patient were sent to a hotel room. Barron says she was bleeding profusely and decided to get professional medical help for herself, knowing she’d be at risk of being arrested if the medical professional who treated her wanted to report her for having an abortion. “If I had stayed in that hotel room, I’d be dead,” Barron says emphatically.

Barron says she had her second abortion with the Jane network, which she describes as giving her a “total opposite” experience compared to her first abortion. With the Jane network, Barron says: “All I heard were kind words, consideration, concern. When I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life.”

Barron’s story is an example of how the Jane network distinguished itself from the incompetent patient care that other underground abortionists provided. According to “The Janes,” the Jane network is estimated to have performed about 11,000 abortions, with none of the patients dying as a direct result of these abortion procedures. It’s an astounding feat, considering all the horror stories before Roe v. Wade of women and girls who died after getting illegal abortions.

The documentary includes disturbing details of septic wards in Chicago hospitals where women and girls with botched abortions often received improper treatment and sometimes died as a result. Those who didn’t die were at risk of being arrested. Several people in the documentary say that the Jane network was different from other abortion groups because the Jane network was led by women, and the services included empathetic counseling in a safe and non-judgmental atmosphere.

The Jane network’s origins began in 1965, when activist Heather Booth was a student at the University of Chicago. A friend, who was also a University of Chicago student, was raped, and the rape victim was unfairly shamed for being “promiscuous.” In 1965, Booth also became involved in the Freedom Summer Project, an activist event. “And during that summer, I learned you have to stand up to legitimate authority,” Booth says in the documentary. “Sometimes, there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”

Booth states that the turning point for her to become a reproductive rights activist was when a friend told her that his pregnant sister was suicidal because the pregnancy was unwanted. It motivated Booth to start an underground abortion service that ended up growing into the Jane network, whose official name was Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Booth says in the documentary that when she launched this service, she was referred to Dr. T.M. Howard, a medical professional who could perform abortions. When she started getting more people to refer to Dr. Howard, she knew there was a demand to have an underground network.

“The Janes” documentary has interviews with several other women who worked in the Jane network, including Judith Arcana (also known as Judy Pildes), Marie Leaner, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens, Eleanor Oliver and Laura Kaplan. The documentary also features interviews with women who used the Jane network’s abortion services (or took a friend to the Jane network) but who only wanted to be identified by a first name in this movie. They include women identified by the names Abby, Eileen, Crystal O., Jeanne, Peaches and Sheila.

After Dr. Howard was arrested for performing illegal abortions, Booth was referred to someone who is interviewed in the documentary and uses the alias Mike. When Mike worked with the Janes, he used the code name Dr. Kaplan, even though he was never a medical doctor, but he received abortion training from a real medical doctor. The Jane network found out that Mike wasn’t a real doctor, but continued to use his services out of necessity until they parted ways with him because of money issues.

Mike says he got involved in doing Jane network abortions because it paid about “four or five times” the amount of money that he could make from doing construction work. He says he didn’t get personally involved with any of the patients’ feelings or problems when doing abortions. “It was a job,” he says nonchalantly in the documentary. By his own admission, Mike eventually had a falling out with the Jane network when he wanted to get paid more money than the network could give him.

Leaner comments on Mike: “I thought he was a blowhard, sort of a con man and a showman and a wise guy. But I also thought that he had a heart.” Mike wasn’t the only person doing abortions for the Jane network. Many women of the Jane network eventually performed abortions, even though they were not medical doctors either. It’s mentioned in the documentary that they did so because licensed medical doctors did not want to get involved or would charge too much money.

Because of the secretive nature of the Jane network, it was standard practice to talk in code. “The Front” was the term used for the waiting room. “The Place” would be the place where the abortions procedures happened. Women and girls who needed the abortion services could use aliases, although they often had to provide the real phone numbers where they could be contacted. In an era before the Internet or burner cell phones, it was a lot harder for people to get temporary contact information that couldn’t be traced back to them.

However, the Jane network had a confidentiality policy not just for their clients’ protection but also for their own protection. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the Chicago Mafia got involved (no doubt through payoffs for protection), which is typical of any illegal operation that attracts the Mafia. At a time when the overwhelming majority of attorneys, doctors and clergy were men, the Jane network also had male allies in these professions who would secretly offer their services to Jane clients.

Speaking of attorneys, Arcana’s lawyer husband (who has a surname that is not Arcana) is also interviewed in “The Janes.” At his request, he is only identified in the documentary by his first name: Michael. He says that he and many of his mostly male attorney peers did not want to get involved in abortion issues at the time, not only because abortion was illegal then but also because civil rights attorneys such as himself were more focused on race relations and had little to no interest in women’s rights.

Still, Arcana says that being a white woman married to an attorney helped a great deal when she and six other Jane network members were arrested in Chicago for homicide on May 3, 1972, because of the abortion services that they provided. The arrestees were Arcana, Scott, Stevens, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Pariser, Sheila Smith and Madeleine Schwenk. (Ironically, nearly 50 years to the day later—on May 2, 2022—the news website Politico revealed a U.S. Supreme Court leaked draft suggesting that members of the court are preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade.)*

Arcana, who had recently given birth at the time of her 1972 arrest, says in the documentary that she had certain privileges that she knew would work to her advantage when it came to getting out on bail. Arcana comments, “Not only was I a nursing mother, I was a college graduate, a white woman, and married to a lawyer. And all of those things were going to get me out on bail. And boy, did I not disbelieve that.”

Because most of the Janes were privileged white women (many were homemakers, college students and full-time activists), they often came from very different backgrounds from many of the low-income people who needed the Jane network’s services. When New York state made abortion legal in 1970, and certain women in the Chicago area could afford to travel to New York for abortions, the Jane clients’ demographics changed to have more low-income people than ever before. “The Janes” documentary mentions that there were tensions and disagreements in the group about how to interact with underprivileged people. The Jane network eventually agreed to offer discounts or free services to those who couldn’t afford to pay the full price.

Issues of race and social class also came up because women of color were rarely allowed to be Jane network leaders. Leaner (who is African American) comments, “There were more women of color—not necessarily on the team of people, but the people who consumed the service.” Kaplan agrees: “The women who came through the Jane network [for abortion services] were very, very different from the women who were in Jane. We would say to women [of color], ‘You can join us,’ but there weren’t a lot of takers.”

“It was a concern for us,” Kaplan says of the differences in racial and social classes between the most of the Jane network workers and most of the Jane network clients, particularly in the network’s later years. “We were primarily white, middle-class women.” The documentary mentions that efforts were made to be mindful of different races and social classes, but the Jane network wasn’t perfect, and it how to deal with race/class differences was an area that always needed improving.

“The Janes” documentary says that Leaner was instrumental in getting civil rights attorney Jo-Anne Wolfson to represent the Jane network defendants in the homicide case. Wolfson, who was initially reluctant to take the case, had a strategy to delay the trial as much as possible. It turned out to be the correct strategy because the U.S. Supreme court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 made the homicide charges no longer legally viable, so the charges were dropped. The Jane network disbanded not long after the Roe v. Wade decision, since their underground services were no longer needed.

The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that abortion before Roe v. Wade was risky not just for physical reasons and legal reasons, but also for psychological and emotional reasons. The stress of being involved in illegal abortions took a toll on many of the clients and workers of the Jane network. The documentary mentions that one Jane leader identified only as Jody eventually had to check into a psychiatric facility because she had a breakdown. Jody eventually quit the Jane network.

And how did the Jane network stay underground for as long as it did with no arrests until 1972? Arcana’s husband Michael puts it bluntly by saying that a lot of the Jane network’s abortion clients were the wives, girlfriends and daughters of influential people in law enforcement and politics. Many of these men paid for the abortions.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include former Chicago homicide detective Ted O’Connor, Rev. Patricia Novick-Raby and Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper. In the documentary, Dr. Allan Weiland and former registered nurse Kathleen Kennedy talk about what they witnessed in pre-Roe. v. Wade septic wards at Chicago hospitals. A man who is only identified by the name Wayne says in the documentary that he was married to a woman who worked in the Jane network with his full support. “Our daughters understood not to talk about it, but they understood that it was just part of my life,” Wayne comments.

As a documentary, “The Janes” might not change people’s minds about the abortion issue. But the movie certainly succeeds in showing that abortion is a health issue that can affect anyone. This isn’t an issue that should be considered only in the realm of a select number of elite politicians and other lawmakers. “The Janes” shows in no uncertain terms that people who are directly affected can be family members, friends and other loved ones of people from all walks of life. These human stories and experiences are at the heart of reproductive rights and family planning.

*UPDATE: On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, thereby eliminating the federal law making abortion legal in the U.S., and giving jurisdiction to each U.S. state to decide what the state’s abortion laws will be. This ruling means that abortions in the U.S. can now be illegal or legal, depending on the state.

HBO and HBO Max will premiere “The Janes” on June 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Happening’ (2021), starring Anamaria Vartolomei

May 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Anamaria Vartolomei in “Happening” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Happening” (2021)

Directed by Audrey Diwan

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, in 1963, the dramatic film “Happening” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A literature student, who is close to graduating from college, experiences an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and she becomes increasingly desperate to get an abortion, which was illegal in France at the time.

Culture Audience: “Happening” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic movies about what women with unwanted pregnancies often have to go through when it is illegal to get an abortion.

Louise Orry-Diquero, Luàna Bajrami and Anamaria Vartolomei in “Happening” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Based on a true story, the realistic drama “Happening” shows without judgment what a college student in 1963 France experienced when she wanted to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, at a time when abortion was illegal in France. It’s not a movie that takes sides in the abortion debate, but it does show that people can look at the same story and have different views of who gets to decide which life is interrupted when a pregnant woman wants to terminate her pregnancy. Although the protagonist of “Happening” grows increasingly desperate to have an abortion, the movie admirably does not put forth the usual melodramatic hysterics that are often in dramas with the same subject matter.

Directed by Audrey Diwan, “Happening” is based on Annie Ernaux’s 2001 novel of the same name. Although the “Happening” book is a work of fiction, it’s inspired by Ernaux’s real-life experiences of when she had an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy when she was a college student in the early 1960s in France. Diwan and Marcia Romano co-wrote the adapted “Happening” screenplay. “Happening” won the Golden Lion Award (the top prize) at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival.

“Happening” (which takes place in 1963 in an unnamed part of France) begins with three university roommates/best friends getting ready for a carefree night out at a local pub. All three pals attend Cité Universitaire and live on campus. Anne Duchesne (played by Anamaria Vartolomei) is the most independent and ambitious of these three pals. She’s a literature major at who is very intelligent and who excels in her literature classes. Anne, who is 22 and will turn 23 on September 1, is in her last year of studies before she graduates.

Anne’s two roommates/best friends at the school are extroverted Brigitte (played by Louise Orry-Diquéro) and introverted Hélène (played by Luàna Bajrami), who have immense admiration and loyalty to Anne, because they think she’s the smartest and emotionally strongest out of all three of them. Anne is loyal to her friends too, but she’s more guarded about what she tells them about her love life. On this particular night, the three friends aren’t thinking about much except going to the pub to dance, drink alcohol, and possibly meet some men they might want to date.

At the bar, Anne shows that she’s not willing to go with any man who pays attention to her. A guy tries some pickup lines on her, and she just walks away. One of the other people at the bar is her closest male friend Jean (played by Kacey Mottet-Klein), so she goes over to talk to Jean after she rejects this potential suitor. For the rest of the night, Anne is content to just spend time dancing with her friends.

Life won’t be so lighthearted for Anne when she goes for a routine visit with her gynecologist, Dr. Ravinsky (played by Fabrizio Rongione), who asks her if she’s had sex in the past month. Anne knows that she has missed her latest menstrual period, but she says hasn’t had sex in this time period. The doctor knows that she’s lying, because he then drops bombshell news on her: Anne is four weeks pregnant.

Anne tells the doctor that she doesn’t want to be pregnant. She pleads with Dr. Ravinsky to “do something.” However, the doctor refuses because he says that he could lose his medical license for performing or being involved with an illegal abortion. The rest of the movie chronicles Anne’s journey as she tries to terminate her pregnancy.

Over the course of the movie, viewers find out who else Anne tells about her secretive pregnancy. Anne also shows that she’s not the self-pitying type and has a lot of pride about solving her own problems. There comes a point when someone offers to give her money for an abortion, but Anne refuses this offer and instead decides to sell many of her possessions to get the money.

“Happening” also has an unflinching portrayal of the emotional and physical toll that this unwanted pregnancy takes on Anne. Her grades start to suffer. She has problems sleeping and eating. And, not surprisingly, when she can’t find a doctor to give her an abortion, she looks into more dangerous options. “Happening” also prefaces scenes with captions showing how many weeks Anne is pregnant, thereby increasing the tension in seeing what’s going to happen next.

The movie also shows the realities that although men often like to dictate what women and girls should do about unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, these women and girls (especially those who don’t have partners) are often really on their own. And they frequently get shamed by people (of any gender) for having unwanted pregnancies, while the men who get the women or girls pregnant are not judged as harshly. This shaming happens to Anne. It comes from catty female students, who see her in a public shower and call her a “loose woman” because they notice that she looks pregnant.

And it also comes from people whom Anne thinks are supposed to help her. During another appointment with Dr. Ravinsky, Anne explains why she’s not ready to become a mother at this time in her life: “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life [of my own]. I could hate the kid for it.” Dr. Ravinsky then tells her in a condescending tone to go through with the pregnancy: “Accept it. You have no choice.” Anne doesn’t believe that she has “no choice.”

Anne experiences paranoia and mistrust, because she is at risk of being arrested if she gets caught having an abortion or trying to get an abortion. She finds a medical professional in the phone book named Dr. Guimet (played by François Lorique), who seems willing to help her, but then he tells Anne how much he charges for medication to induce a miscarriage. What Anne experiences with Dr. Guimet is an example of how licensed medical professionals can take advantage of pregnant women and girls who are desperate to terminate their pregnancies.

By showing Anne’s pregnancy journey, “Happening” starkly presents the question: “When a man gets a woman pregnant and doesn’t want the child either, how much should he get involved with what the woman should do about the pregnancy?” There are no easy answers, of course, because a lot depends on the circumstances and the people.

The father of Anne’s child isn’t revealed until about halfway through the movie. His name is Maxime (played by Julien Frison of the Comédie-Française), a political science student whom Anne met at a bookstore while he was visiting from Bordeaux. Anne’s pregnancy is a result of her and Maxime’s brief fling. Maxime’s reaction to this pregnancy news is exactly what most people might expect from a college student who doesn’t think he’s ready to become a parent. However, Maxime is hurt and confused that Anne didn’t tell him sooner, because he thinks he should’ve had a say in her decision.

Vartolomei’s performance as Anne makes this movie worth watching because it’s riveting in all of its nuances. (It’s easy to see why Vartolomei won the Best Female Newcomer prize at the 2022 César Awards, which is the French version of the Academy Awards.) Anne has a quiet determination to do what she thinks needs to be done while she tries to hold on to some dignity in a system that often tries to make her feel powerless and demeaned. Perhaps as a way to deal with the stress, Anne sometimes acts like she wants to forget that she’s pregnant. But she can’t ignore her pregnancy, and her decision about what to do leads her down a path that’s terrifying for her.

“Happening” is not an easy movie to watch in the scenes where Anne’s desperation leads her to do some extreme things. Abortion has been a divisive political issue, but what most people can agree on is that it’s also an important health issue. “Happening” shows that whether abortion is legal or not, a decision on what to do about an unwanted pregnancy comes with an emotional cost that cannot be regulated by any laws.

IFC Films released “Happening” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 21, 2022. “Happening” was released in France and other countries in Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘The Fight’ (2020), starring Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Brigitte Amiri, Josh Block and Chase Strangio

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Fight” (2020) 

Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres 

Culture Representation: This documentary about the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians, Latinos and black people), as the movie follows five ACLU attorneys in their battles for civil rights.

Culture Clash:  The movie (which began filming shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in 2017) focuses on four main issues that ACLU is fighting against with the Trump administration: immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights.

Culture Audience: “The Fight” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal political views and/or support what the ACLU is doing.

Lee Gelernt in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “The Fight” takes a behind-the scenes look at some of the legal battles waged by the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 2017. Although the legal issues aren’t new, the documentary shows that Trump’s attempts as president to make sweeping changes to civil-rights laws brought increased urgency for the ACLU to fight back against those attempts.

“The Fight” co-directors Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres had unprecedented access to ACLU headquarters as well as high-ranking members of the ACLU team. The movie focuses on five attorneys with four different specialties: Lee Gelernt (immigrants’ rights); Brigitte Amiri (reproductive rights); Dale Ho (voting rights); and Josh Block and Chase Strangio (LGBTQ rights).

Each of these four issues is given a spotlight, as the featured ACLU attorneys prepare legal cases that represent these causes. Cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms for these cases, but what happens on the inside of these courtrooms is depicted in the film through audio recordings, illustrations and animation.

Gelernt is involved in battling Trump’s order to banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as the controversy over immigrants seeking refugee status in the U.S. and being locked up and separated from their children. He is he deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program. In the documentary (where almost all of the clients’ full names are not disclosed, for privacy reasons), Gelernt is shown helping an African immigrant woman identified only as “Mrs. L” in her case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) because she was separated from her 7-year-old daughter, who was sent to live in Chicago without Mrs. L’s permission.

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project deputy director Amiri fights back in cases involving abortion restrictions that the ACLU believes are unconstitutional policies against the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in all U.S. states in 1973. Amiri, with the help of ACLU reproductive rights attorney Meagan Burrows, is shown helping a 17-year-old Spanish-speaking pregnant immigrant in the case Garza v. Hargan.

The immigrant, who is identified only as “Jane Doe” in the documentary, says that her pregnancy was due to rape, and she wants an abortion, but is being prevented from getting an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which she says is treating her like a prisoner. In an interview with Spanish, she says that ORR officials won’t let her outside, they follow her into the bathroom, and they won’t let her visit a doctor. The outcome of her case is a race against time, because in the U.S. state where she lives, abortion is illegal when a pregnancy reaches at least 20 weeks, and Jane Doe’s interview in the documentary was when she was 15 weeks pregnant.

ORR director Scott Lloyd, an admitted right-wing conservative, is the ACLU’s chief nemesis in this case, since he’s the official who signed off on Jane Doe not being able to have an abortion. Lloyd is seen squirming and being evasive in a videotaped deposition when asked what his views are on abortion. But later in the documentary there is TV footage of him appearing on a conservative talk show openly discussing that he is a conservative Christian who thinks abortion should not be legal.

ACLU Voting Rights Project director Ho does a lot of work against voter suppression. But the main battle that he has in the documentary is the case Department of Commerce v. New York, which is the ACLU’s fight to prevent any questions from being added to the 2020 U.S. Census that asks if anyone in a U.S. household is a U.S. citizen. The ACLU and other civil-rights groups have a legal argument that this question about U.S. citizenship is unconstitutional for a U.S. census, because the question is designed to deter people from filling out a census form if they are not U.S. citizens or have people in their households who aren’t U.S. citizens, thereby making them underrepresented in the census.

Block (an openly gay cisgender male) and Strangio (an openly transgender male) work as a team. Block is a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. Strangio (who is a parent to a daughter, who’s shown in the documentary) is deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Block and Strangio are seen working on the case Stone v. Trump, in reaction to Trump wanting to ban transgender people from the U.S. military. In this case, the ACLU is representing transgender male plaintiff Brock Stone, a U.S. Navy petty officer first class who has been in the Navy since 2006.

The directing style of the documentary is cinéma vérité, with each of the narrative jumping back and forth between each case. There is ample use of a split-screen format (with three or four screens at once) to show what might be happening on multiple cases. However, all of this doesn’t get confusing because the cases and the lawyers are very distinct from each other, and everything is smoothly edited to together in a cohesive storytelling style.

And fortunately, the documentary isn’t cluttered with a lot of interviews with people who aren’t involved in the cases, because those outside people would be a distraction and could possibly compromise some of the confidentiality of any pending cases at the time. Other ACLU employees who are briefly featured in the documentary include ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and ACLU deputy director of communications Stacy Sullivan.

On the flip side, the documentary doesn’t shut out opposing views of the ACLU. There is some archival footage of ACLU opponents getting into debates with ACLU attorneys on TV talk shows (usually on cable news channels), as well as news footage of Trump and his supporters at Trump rallies and speeches. And the documentary briefly includes other examples of the ACLU representing people or groups that promote hate speech and other controversial issues that the ACLU says that people have a right to express under freedom of speech.

There’s also a segment in “The Fight” where all of the featured attorneys read aloud or show many of the hate messages that they get (on social media, by mail or by phone), because of the work that they do for the ACLU. Many of the haters identify themselves as Trump supporters, and the ACLU lawyers who aren’t straight white men are often called racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.

Gelernt says of the hateful criticism that often includes death threats or other threats to his safety: “If you don’t look at the negative stuff, you’re sort of in your own bubble.” Ho comments on being the target of ACLU haters: “I don’t want to run from this,” as he says as he takes a hate-filled postcard that he got in the mail and tacks the postcard on his office wall.

The documentary also includes an unflinching look at how there can be conflicts within the ACLU. The ACLU won a lawsuit for a Unite the Right protest (consisting of white supremacists) to be held on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and August 12, 2017. That rally led to tragedy, when a Unite the Right supporter plowed his car through counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Although some people blamed the ACLU for this tragedy, others did not. And the documentary shows that people in the ACLU also had different opinions on how the ACLU’s legal defense for the Unite the Right protest to take place ended up playing a role in this tragedy. The documentary does not show anyone at the ACLU getting into heated debates about this protest, but the film does offer two different points of view from high-ranking ACLU officials.

ACLU director David Cole (a white man) stands firm in his belief that the ACLU did the right thing in helping make the Unite the Right protest happen: “We defend civil liberties for all,” he says in the documentary. Meanwhile, ACLU deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson (an African American man) says that privately, he had a problem with the ACLU being involved in making the Unite to Right rally happen, and he did not support ACLU’s decision to represent the Unite the Right people in their legal case to make the protest happen. Robinson comments in what was obviously a prepared statement: “The ACLU was not responsible for Heather Heyer’s death, but we were not a random organization just watching what happened.”

The documentary does a good job of making the featured attorneys look very human. The attorneys are all shown with family members (Gelernt, Amiri and Ho are married with children) and with getting emotional during the many ups and downs in their cases. They all show empathy for their clients. And they all talk about the toll that their stressful work takes on their personal lives and emotional health. However, none of them wants to quit because they say that the work is too important to them.

They attorneys aren’t afraid to show their insecurities: Block wants Strangio to take the lead on the Stone v. Trump case, because Strangio is transgender, but Strangio declines to do so because he says that he’s still not comfortable standing up in court and making arguments. Ho is the lawyer who tends get gets tongue-tied and flustered the most. Gelernt talks about feeling that if he loses a case, he will let down not just his client but also American society. (All ACLU attorneys probably feel this way too.)

But not everything is dead-serious in the film. There are touches of humor, such Gelernt (the oldest lawyer in the documentary’s featured five) getting flustered when he doesn’t know how to plug a phone charger into a computer. Each of the attorneys give a tour of the ACLU offices in their own unique style, and during his tour Gelernt admits that he doesn’t even know how to use the copy machine.

Meanwhile, Block is shown going from pleased to frustrated when he uses a dictation program on his computer. Things starts out fine but then the computer program’s translation abilities quickly goes awry, in one of the funnier scenes in the film. Ho is shown in multiple scenes practicing his courtroom arguments in front of a mirror, sometimes with amusing results.

Of the legal cases featured in “The Fight,” most of the outcomes are already known. However, just because there have been rulings on these cases (some of which were appealed), that doesn’t dilute a lot of gripping suspense and emotionally stirring moments in the documentary, since it shows for the first time many of the behind-the-scenes, real-time reactions that the ACLU people had to major steps in the cases.

The ACLU is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, so “The Fight” is a fitting tribute to the legacy and longevity of the ACLU. But as Ho says in the documentary, the ACLU should not be counted on as the only way to defend liberties for everyone, when there are forces trying to take away or restrict those freedoms. “It’s not going to be lawyers in courts,” he comments on who will be making the most progress. “It’s going to be people [in the general public] turning the ship around.”

“The Fight” probably won’t change a lot of people’s political opinions. Trump’s views on issues such as immigration and abortion were made very clear during his presidential campaign, so people who voted for him in 2016 expected him to act on those views. However, for anyone interested in what politically liberal attorneys at the ACLU are doing behind the scenes to push back against many of the changes that Trump and politically conservative lawmakers want for the United States, “The Fight” offers an insightful peek into this process.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios released “The Fight” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘AKA Jane Roe,’ starring Norma McCorvey

May 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Norma McCorvey and Gloria Allred in “AKA Jane Roe” (Photo courtesy of FX)

“AKA Jane Roe”

Directed by Nick Sweeney

Culture Representation: The documentary “AKA Jane Roe” interviews Norma McCorvey and an all-white group of people representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-class who talk about McCorvey and the impact she had on the abortion debate in the United States.

Culture Clash: McCorvey advocated for both sides of the debate at different times in her life.

Culture Audience: “AKA Roe” will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in abortion issues, but the documentary will also appeal to people who want an inside look at how the media and activist leaders can be manipulated by an attention-hungry person.

Norma McCorvey and Gloria Allred in “AKA Jane Roe” (Photo courtesy of FX)

Before she died of heart failure in February 2017, at the age of 69, controversial abortion-debate figurehead Norma Jean McCorvey participated in a documentary about her life and made a bombshell revelation while making the film. The ailing McCorvey had a “deathbed confession” about her extremely contradictory activism about abortion. That confession doesn’t come until the end of director Nick Sweeney’s absorbing documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” but the entire film offers a fascinating portrait of a deeply troubled woman who will forever be known as a groundbreaking plaintiff in abortion legislation.

A great deal of the documentary includes exclusive interviews with McCorvey and separate individual interviews with advocates on both sides of the abortion debate, as well as archival footage. As the title of the documentary indicates, McCorvey was also known by the alias Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which the plaintiff won, and it resulted in making abortion federally legal throughout the United States in 1973. Prior to this Supreme Court decision, it was up to an individual state to decide if abortion could be legal or not in the state. McCorvey was given the alias Jane Roe to protect her privacy, but after the Supreme Court decision, she went public with her real identity.

McCorvey, a Texas resident in the Dallas area, was divorced and pregnant with her third child in 1969, at the age of 21, when she sought an abortion in Texas and was denied. By her own admission, she was also an alcoholic, drug addict and “street person” during her 20s, and she was in no position to be a healthy and responsible mother to a child. And she couldn’t afford to travel to a state that had less restrictive abortion laws than Texas.

McCorvey had already lost custody of her first child, Melissa (also known as Missy), who was born during what McCorvey describes as an abusive marriage to a husband whom she married when she was 16 and whom she eventually divorced. Missy was primarily raised by McCorvey’s mother. McCorvey’s second child from another man was put up for adoption. The child whom McCorvey was pregnant with when she was denied an abortion (which led to the Roe v. Wade case) was also put up for adoption.

Although one might assume that McCorvey’s seedy and troubled background would make her a less-than-ideal “poster child” for the pro-choice movement, the movement selected her because she was the exact type of underprivileged and uneducated woman who was the most vulnerable to getting an unsafe, illegal abortion that could kill her. The Roe v. Wade case, with attorneys Sarah Heddington and Linda Coffee representing the plaintiff, applies to all females. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that when abortion is illegal, poor people tend to suffer the most.

In the beginning of “AKA Jane Roe,” McCorvey tells her life story, by describing her unhappy childhood. She says that her mother was a “drunk” and a “two-faced bitch who didn’t want a second child—me.” She describes her mother as physically abusive to her and “someone who had a taste for the party life and didn’t want to let go.”

Her father couldn’t take it anymore and left the family when McCorvey was young. She became a juvenile delinquent, which set her on a path to becoming a drug addict, drug dealer and hustler by the time she was in her 20s. Andy Meiseler, who co-wrote McCorvey’s 1994 memoir “I Am Roe,” appears briefly in the documentary to talk about her background.

The documentary shows that McCorvey was in obviously failing health while doing these interviews. She’s wheelchair-bound and often wears an oxygen tube, even though in other parts of the movie, it’s clear that smoking is still a bad habit for her. When asked if she misses her family, McCorvey replies bitterly, “You can’t miss anything you never had.”

McCorvey also talks about knowing from an early age that her true sexual identity was being a lesbian. She describes how, at the age of 10, she and a friend named Rita, who was around the same age, robbed a gas station by stealing money from the register, so that they could run away to Oklahoma City. While the two girls were staying at a motel, a maid caught them kissing, and the two girls were arrested and sentenced to juvenile detention, partially because of the robbery but also because they were caught in homosexual activity.

As McCorvey remembers it, being in juvenile detention surrounded by other females confirmed her sexual preference: “I had a lot of girlfriends,” she says of her time locked up with other females. When she got out, she was sent to live with a male relative who sexually abused her. And then she got married at 16 to 22-year-old Woody McCorvey, only because (according to Norma McCorvey) her mother told that if she was having sex with him, she might as well marry him.

McCorvey also admits in the film that she got married because she knew that Woody had a lot more money than she did. She mentions that she always dreamed of becoming a movie star so that she could have a glamorous life. And she says something very telling which also explains her motivations for her controversial decisions: “I learned straight on that if you’re nice and quiet and polite, no one pays attention to you—and I like attention.”

After being a very vocal pro-choice advocate in the 1970s and 1980s, McCorvey went in the complete opposite direction in the 1990s and 2000s, by becoming a born-again Christian and voicing her support for the pro-life movement. Was this conversion sincere or was it all an act? In the documentary, she reveals that it was all an act, which she basically admits that she did for the money that pro-life groups were paying her.

The film takes a responsible journalistic approach by interviewing influential activists on both sides of the abortion debate. On the pro-choice side are Charlotte Taft (who was an abortion counselor at now-shuttered Routh Street Women’s Clinic in Dallas) and feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who had McCorvey as a client in the late 1980s. On the pro-life side are Rev. Flip Benham and Rev. Rob Schenck, who talk extensively about why the pro-life movement is working hard to make abortion illegal again.

Benham is by far the more fanatical of the two, since he doesn’t believe in any compromise in the abortion debate. He also advocates for and participates in using extreme tactics to get people to stop having or facilitating legal abortions. “I’m not an activist. I’m a Christian,” Benham insists, even though he is shown in a lot of footage holding picket signs and shouting insults at people who go into clinics that provide abortions.

Taft calls Benham a “constant harasser.” Benham describes himself as “born-again” and someone who used to be a “drunken buffoon.” He adds, “I wanted my wife to abort our twin boys … But I came to the realization that abortion is murder.”

Schenck says that people in the pro-life movement consider Roe v. Wade to “represent the most loathsome and terrible practices in our society: killing children.” Just like Benham, Schenck worked closely with McCorvey when she switched alliances and became an activist for the pro-life movement.

Taft says about McCorvey’s about-face: “Being friends with Norma was a complicated experience.” The documentary points out that even before McCorvey renounced the pro-choice movement and began to campaign against abortion, she had already alienated herself from much of the pro-choice movement when, in the 1980s, she admitted that the abortion she sought back in 1969 wasn’t because it was a rape pregnancy. She said she lied to the doctor about being raped because she thought it would increase her chances of getting a medically approved abortion in Texas.

Although Roe v. Wade was never about how or why pregnancies occur, McCorvey’s credibility and reputation were tarnished when she publicly confessed that she lied about that 1969 pregnancy being the result of rape. That’s why when there was a major pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C., in April 1989 (an estimated 300,000 people attended), McCorvey was not invited to speak at the rally, even though she was there. She also wasn’t invited to be on stage. Instead, there were several celebrity speakers, such as Gloria Steinem, Whoopi Goldberg, Valerie Harper and Cybill Shepherd.

It was at this rally where attorney Allred first met McCorvey, who would eventually become her client. Allred says of McCorvey being snubbed by the pro-choice leaders at the rally: “She felt that she had been denied the opportunity to be recognized and acknowledged.” Allred and McCorvey did a whirlwind publicity tour to rehabilitate McCorvey’s public image as a pro-choice advocate. But by 1995, McCorvey had converted to Catholicism, renounced her previous life as a pro-choice activist, and became heavily involved in pro-life activities and fundamentalist Christian proselytism.

One of the casualties of McCorvey’s highly publicized religious conversion was her relationship with her longtime partner Connie Gonzalez. Although they had been living openly as lesbians even after McCorvey’s conversion, McCorvey and Gonzalez supposedly agreed to their church’s demands that they no longer engage in any homosexual activity. According to Benham: “One cannot be a practicing homosexual and Christian at the same time. That would be a distinct impossibility.”

In archival footage of Benham baptizing McCorvey in a swimming pool, Gonzalez looks on with a mixture of fear and sadness, as if she knew what would inevitably happen to her relationship with McCorvey. After Gonzalez had a stroke in 2004, McCorvey left her in 2006. When McCorvey talks about Gonzalez (who died in 2015) in the documentary, it’s the only time that the feisty and defiant McCorvey seems extremely vulnerable and regretful. She describes Gonzalez as a “good person” who was the love of her life.

One of the must-see aspects about “AKA Jane Roe” is how the documentary shows the reactions of Allred, Taft, Benham and Schenck when the filmmakers show them the interview footage of McCorvey proudly confessing that she just used the pro-life movement to get money—she received an estimated $456,911 over several years—and she only said what the pro-life leaders told her to say, not because she actually had pro-life beliefs. All of them initially react with surprise, but once the reality sinks in of what McCorvey confessed, they each have different follow-up responses.

The documentary also includes McCorvey getting a major shock of her own, when she’s shown reacting in angry disbelief to the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The morning after the election, McCorvey (who supported Hillary Clinton) is shown excusing herself to go get sick in the bathroom after it was officially declared that Donald Trump was going to be the 45th president of the United States.

As for whether or not McCorvey’s final words should be believed, even after she told so many abortion-related lies over the years, she says in the documentary’s interview footage: “I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now.” McCorvey may not have made it to Hollywood to become a glamorous movie star, but it’s clear that she did get her wish to become a famous actress after all.

FX premiered “AKA Jane Roe” on May 22, 2020. FX on Hulu premiered “AKA Jane Roe” on May 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always,’ starring Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder

March 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Pennsylvania and New York City, the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” about a 17-year-old who gets an abortion, has a predominantly white cast with some representation of African Americans.

Culture Clash: The teenager seeking the abortion doesn’t want to tell her parents, so she travels from her native Pennsylvania to New York, where adult permission isn’t required to get an abortion.

Culture Audience: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written, well-acted independent films and are concerned about reproductive rights.

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

When viewers first see 17-year-old Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan) in the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” she’s performing at a talent show at her high school in rural Pennsylvania. She’s on stage by herself, singing and playing an original song on acoustic guitar, with lyrics that include “He’s got the power of love me” and “He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” During her somewhat nervous performance, a guy around her same age shouts from the audience, “Slut!” She pauses briefly, with shock and embarrassment flashing across her face, and then continues the performance.

After the show, Autumn is eating at a local diner with her family—her mother (played by Sharon Van Etten), her stepfather (played by Ryan Eggold) and Autumn’s cousin/best friend/schoolmate Skylar (played by Talia Ryder). The conversation is tense, since Autumn and her stepfather do not get along, and her mother has to urge him to tell Autumn that she did a good job at the talent show.

Meanwhile, the same guy who rudely heckled her at the talent show is eating at a nearby table with some friends. He makes a sexually obscene gesture to Autumn. And she walks over to the table and throws a glass of water on him without saying a word before she leaves.

The quiet way that Autumn handles this problem is consistent with her personality, which is introverted and sometimes sullen. And when she finds out that she’s pregnant (the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted), it’s no surprise that she wants to keep the pregnancy secret from her parents and she wants to get an abortion. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, it’s implied that the guy who heckled her is the father of her child. Whatever relationship she had with the guy, it has clearly ended.

Autumn finds out she’s pregnant by going to a “pregnancy crisis center,” and notices something odd: The woman who gives her the pregnancy test is using a test that can be bought at a drugstore. The female worker also discourages Autumn from getting an abortion and tells her about her options for having the baby. Autumn won’t find out until later that this place is not a real medical clinic, but a facility affiliated with a pro-life group.

When she goes to a real clinic, Autumn thinks she’s 10 weeks pregnant, based on what she was told at the “pregnancy crisis center.” But she’s gets a harsh shock when she finds out that she’s actually 18 weeks pregnant.  It takes a while for it to sink in to Autumn that the “pregnancy crisis center” mostly likely intentionally deceived her about her pregnancy term, so that if she decided to terminate the pregnancy, there would be a possibility that she would wait until it was too late to get a legal abortion.

After finding out about the pregnancy, Autumn becomes distracted and more emotionally withdrawn. Skylar notices right away that something is wrong, and so Autumn confides in her about being pregnant. Autumn has done her research on the Internet and found out that because she is under 18, she can’t get a legal abortion in Pennsylvania without signed permission from her parents. New York is the closest state to her where minors can get an abortion without needing adult permission, but Autumn doesn’t have the money to the take the trip and to get the abortion.

Autumn and Skylar work together as cashiers in a supermarket, where they are being sexually harassed by an unseen male supervisor. Every time they hand in their cash register’s money through a window at the end of their shift, the supervisor creepily kisses their hands, and the girls cringe in disgust. It’s perhaps why Skylar impulsively and somewhat gleefully steals some of the cash-register money one day to help pay for their bus trip to New York.

But when Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, what they thought would be a one-day trip has to be extended to two days, because New York state law requires a two-day process for abortions. Autumn and Skylar have to find an place to stay overnight that they can afford. Meanwhile, Autumn has insurance through her parents, but she doesn’t want the abortion to appear on their insurance records. So she has to pay for the abortion herself, which doesn’t leave enough money for the bus trip back home.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (written and directed by Eliza Hittman) takes viewers on a harrowing and poignant journey that avoids a lot of clichés about unplanned teen pregnancies. No one gets hysterical in the movie, and there’s no sympathetic adult who swoops in to help Autumn with her problem. Autumn’s quiet desperation is shown in heartbreaking moments, such as when she repeatedly punches her abdomen to try to induce a miscarriage. (Her bruises are seen when she gets an ultrasound at a real clinic.)

And in the movie’s most powerful scene (which inspired the film’s title), at the clinic in New York, Autumn is asked a series of questions about her personal life. The multiple choice answers are “never, rarely, sometimes, always.” Autumn’s emotionally painful reactions reveal some of the trauma that she’s experienced her her life.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won a Special Grand Jury Award for Neorealism at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear (second-place award) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie’s greatest strength is in not trying to be a story about extraordinary accomplishments (which is often the focus of many dramatic films) but by taking an unflinching look at the everyday turmoil and obstacles that someone like Autumn can face in trying to get a legal abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.

Flanigan and Ryder give utterly realistic performances that also show the importance of their friendship and family bond, which can be considered a bright spot in Autumn’s very bleak situation. And the directorial approach of Hittman is to tell the story in such an intimate way, that viewers will feel like almost like they’re watching from the viewpoint of a hidden camera.

Regardless of how someone might feel about abortion or which laws are in place, the reality of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies isn’t going to go away. The question that the movie puts forth is whether or not people under the age 18 have less rights in choosing when to become parents, and if they should have to go through more indignities and more restrictions to get safe and legal abortions. Autumn’s story is a cautionary tale on what can happen to someone in this situation. The toll that it takes isn’t limited to the person seeking an abortion but can have ripple effects on society at large.

Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to April 3, 2020.

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