In “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” filmmaker Mary Dore chronicles the bumptious, bellicose, often boisterously funny beginnings of second-wave feminism, which started as an offshoot of the antiwar and civil rights movements in the mid-1960s and whose core tenets are still astonishingly contentious even today.
Dore has mined stock footage, archival press clippings and, most invaluably, the firsthand recollections of feminist leaders who can recall with crystalline outrage the oppressive culture that gave rise to what was then known as women’s liberation. One activist recalls reading Betty Friedan’s germinal 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” and realizing that “it wasn’t him, it wasn’t me, it was society.” Another, having been a loyal grass-roots worker for the student New Left, remembers getting booed off the stage during a feminist speech at a demonstration by her nominally progressive male comrades, who jeered her with sexist insults and threats.
Interviewing such galvanizing figures as Alix Kates Shulman, Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millett and the late Ellen Willis, Dore gracefully threads viewers through the overlapping problems that collectively came to be called “women’s issues,” from economic inequality and rape to safe and legal abortion and homophobia. The women’s movement finally provided language for such phenomena as sexual harassment and domestic violence. Before that, as Gloria Steinem later famously quipped, it was just called “life.”
Apart from a brief photo, Steinem is pointedly missing from “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” as are her co-founders of Ms. magazine. Dore is more interested in the local cadres that sprang up spontaneously throughout the early ’70s through consciousness-raising groups; the samizdat of DIY journals, pamphlets and position papers; and street theater and poetry. (“The personal is political” is a famous movement aphorism, but in many feminists’ hands it also was wildly performative.)
Among the many services the documentary provides is to remind viewers of a time when to go viral all you needed was “a mimeograph machine and some stamps,” as one activist puts it, and when brilliant, passionate public thinkers were refining important theoretical work about gender, race, class and sexual orientation long before words like intersectionality had been invented.
With its awkward reenactments and other stylistic clunkers, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” doesn’t break much formal ground. But it serves as a moving reminder of how crucial citizen action is in fomenting social change. As author Susan Brownmiller says, the most important progress in making America more equal was started by the very “radicals” who today are so often despised and marginalized.
What’s more, Dore delivers the depressing but clarion message that, whether one considers the chipping away of reproductive rights, the persistent scourge of sexual assault or the dismal spectacle of cyber- bullying, women are still being forced to defend their reasonable claims to a fair share of social space. As longtime Texas activist Virginia Whitehill says during the film’s first few moments, “You’re not allowed to retire from women’s issues.” At least not yet.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief nudity, brief profanity and references to adult themes. 92 minutes.