Until now, there surprisingly had been no major documentary about the recent history of feminism and the women’s rights movement. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry conforms to almost all the numbers of by-the-numbers nonfiction filmmaking, but it does so with an area that’s traditionally gone under-served by the form. If you’re the kind of viewer who applies a “why couldn’t I have just read about this?” test to docs, then this will fail it, but such a standard underestimates the visceral immersion that film can provide for history. Which is why that’s a stupid test and no one should be viewing documentaries through such a toxic lens.
The film covers a timeline from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s. The period when The Feminine Mystique began taking hold of the public consciousness is marked as the first big milestone, and it concludes roughly around the emergence of radical feminism, tracking many of the major developments in American feminism within those bookends. Dozens of movers and shakers of the time are interviewed, and it is their voices that craft a structure for the doc. It takes particular care to make sure that the interviewees are not a monolith of straight whiteness, and while the majority of them are still straight and/or white, the challenges that minorities faced fighting for a place in mainstream feminism are well-examined.
There’s no central narrator shepherding things along. In fact, the main distinguishing feature of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is its decentralized sensibility. There is no A to B to C sequence of major events. It simply tracks the years it’s looking at, using whoever’s voice is relevant to the events at hand to explain what happened. In that manner, the doc is not unlike the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” collective (members of which are of course featured in the film), which drew upon whoever had the needed experience to contribute a part of their project’s whole. Women’s Liberation in the 20th century doesn’t have a widely agreed-upon figurehead the way the Civil Rights movement had Martin Luther King Jr. There’s no single group to track, and this film tries to play to that rather than stuff it into a more digestible story.
The doc thus doesn’t build one emotional arc so much as it keeps hitting peaks and valleys as various events are recounted. Their impact is sometimes diluted by the film’s over-reliance on reenactments, which are all stilted and limp. And the use of modern-day young women reading quotes from historical activists never has the intended effect of bridging past and present in an evocative way. But at other times, the tandem act of lively interview and solid firsthand footage makes it truly energizing.
Progress is slow. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry mentions how it took 50 years of activism for women to attain suffrage, and no one in the doc is under any illusion that their work is too much closer to being done than it was when they originally took it up. The film casts a wary eye on how women’s rights are being rolled back by modern legislation. Progress, it thus reminds us, is also a constant effort. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry will make a worthy tool for classroom use for years to come — assuming it’s allowed into classrooms.