March is Women’s History Month in the US, and while we’ve already honored the occasion with a feature on women’s personal films, it’s about time for a list of great documentaries offering stories of significant women and events. Sadly, it’s not as easy to find a lot of worthy films as it was for our Black History Month equivalent in February. There aren’t as many exceptional docs on the women’s movement as there are on the African American Civil Rights movement.
The crop is sure to grow, however, not just on efforts to present the history of feminism but also to showcase important women in history, such as Alice Guy-Blache, an early filmmaking pioneer whose life is the subject of an upcoming doc from executive producer Robert Redford. Another expected to be out this year is on computer language heroine Grace Hopper. And the work that Women Make Movies is doing to support films about women is always increasing and improving.
It’s not that there is lack of great docs focused on women. In fact, there are tons with women subjects, but not of a historical nature. The following films are about women who’ve made strides toward gender equality or who’ve made some sort of momentous achievement independently of any movement.
Helen Keller: In Her Story (a.k.a. The Unconquered)
Helen Keller, important to women’s history for more than just being famously deaf and blind, was already the subject of a film in 1919, titled Deliverance, but while she did appear as herself in that silent feature, the film was more of a biopic, with her dramatizing her own life. This Oscar-winning 1954 effort (barely a feature at 45 minutes long) came about long after she had become an international speaker on behalf of both disabled rights and the United States, and the doc itself was a part of the US Information Agency’s packaged propaganda exported around the globe — all ironic since Keller’s politics weren’t necessarily in tune with the American government.
Initially Robert Flaherty was approached to make a Keller film, but those approving the project instead went with actress/songwriter/filmmaker Nancy Hamilton, whose partner, Keller’s actress pal Katherine Cornell, provided narration. The result is a necessary profile of then-74-year-old Keller, especially if you only know of the portrayals in version of The Miracle Worker.
Up Against the Wall Miss America
Here’s a piece of radical underground journalism/activism that now functions as a record of history more than a work of historicism, but it’s a short film that has stuck in my mind for many years. Produced by Third World Newsreel (then just Newsreel), it’s a barely six-minute account of the protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant, during which a sheep was crowed the title in a mock ceremony and signs, shouts and songs referred to women as slaves used to sell the Vietnam War and consumer goods and be nothing more than a piece of meat for their husbands.
Watch it below.
Town Bloody Hall (A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation)
Like Up Against the Wall Miss America, this 1979 film is more record than history, but what a fascinating document it is. Direct Cinema masters Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker capture the riotous 1971 debate on sexual politics between Norman Mailer and representatives of the women’s movement, including Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling. Actually, it was Pennebaker who did the capturing, as Hegedus didn’t come into his life until a few years later, and it was really she who took the thought-worthless footage and turned it into this film. How perfect that one of the great women documentarians is responsible for such an exceptional work, though it’s somewhat unfortunate that her husband still gets much more credit.
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
Another Oscar-winning film, this 1994 feature by Freida Lee Mock (whose latest, Anita, just hit theaters) is about the life of one of the most accomplished architects in America, man or woman. The fact that Maya Lin is a woman did cause some controversy with her design being chosen for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. That she was then only 20, an undergraduate at Yale, and Asian American, were also sore spots for many conservative voices, whose opposition we hear of. The doc focuses on that project, though there’s some about her designing the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, as well. Of course, it was made relatively early in her life and career when you look at all she’s done since, but that first landmark was her most monumental achievement.
Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony
What’s a list of history documentaries without an entry by Ken Burns? This Emmy-winning 3 ½-hour PBS miniseries from 1999 chronicles the suffrage movement in the basic Burns style — archival photos, some expert talking heads and readings where important persons are voiced by notable actors, including Julie Harris as Susan B. Anthony and Keith David as Frederick Douglas. Sally Kellerman narrates the story of Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who together fought for half a century for women’s rights. It’s a piece of American history that isn’t taught nearly as in depth as it should be, but fortunately we have Burns to educate us where the schools fail.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed
This documentary is a necessary inclusion on this list, as much as it was on the Black History Month list. Rather than attempt to rewrite myself, here is a repeat of that listing:
The story of Shirley Chisholm…is another sadly not remembered enough today. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and in 1972 she ran for president. She came in fourth place out of the 13 Democrats running and ninth out of the nearly 80 possibilities for the vice president ticket. Shola Lynch, now better known for Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed this double Independent Spirit Award nominee, which has been criticized for being a documentary about how Chisholm was the first black woman to make a bid for the White House in spite of Chisholm repeatedly stating that’s not how she wants to be seen or remembered. I think that’s what makes this 2004 doc interesting, though, not bad. And it definitely has relativity to Barack Obama’s presidency and the potential of a Hillary Clinton bid in 2016.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Of all the women featured on this list, Joan Rivers might seem like the least important for history, but that’d only be if you don’t know much about her and/or haven’t seen Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s 2010 film. It’s an expectedly hilarious yet strikingly emotional profile on a comedy pioneer whose recent life, at the time of the doc’s filming, is the story of a 76 year old dealing with all the cultural and industry issues pertaining to aging women. One of the best biographical docs of the past decade, it’s wonderfully candid and honest and self-evaluating on the part of its subject, though that isn’t too surprising coming from Rivers except that it’s not always accompanied by punchlines.
Lorenz Knauer’s 2010 film on Jane Goodall and her activism career is surprisingly strong — hopeful and inspiring and well-produced, a doc that is ultimately about selling a cause and organization yet is primarily focused on telling a story. And there’s some superb landscape cinematography courtesy of Richard Ladkani (director of The Devil’s Miner). If you only know of Goodall as the chimp lady, then get to know her now as an advocate for human rights and environmentalism, in addition to her reputation for animal rights issues.
Gloria: In Her Own Words
It took long enough for Gloria Steinem to be the subject of a documentary. She’s only the most famous figure of the women’s movement of the 20th century. But this 2011 HBO production directed by Peter W. Kunhardt was worth the wait. It’s the type of exhaustive biographical history that features a ton of archival footage glued together by the subject telling her ow story. So, it’s obviously quite a positive profile and while it’s a bit too short with a running time of only around an hour, it’s a colorful spotlight on a vibrant woman who still proves to be an incredible gateway to the rest of the feminist movement and story.
Makers: Women Who Make America
For anyone who criticized Gloria: In Her Own Words for being too focused, this three-hour PBS miniseries should fill in most of the rest. Produced by Kunhardt and directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy), the project apparently initially was intended to be just about Steinem, who at the time said she didn’t want something solely about her. She appears in the doc, of course, as do many prominent American women, including Hilary Rodham Clinton, Marlo Thomas and Oprah Winfrey, while we navigate through the second and third wave feminist movements, from Betty Friedan through the 1990s sexual harassment revolution and Clinton’s role as a front seat First Lady. Not just a miniseries, the Makers project is a multimedia endeavor through which you can learn even more via Makers.com. And there’s more coming this summer, as six new documentaries will be debuting on PBS in June and September.
This post was originally published on March 24, 2014.