Judge Elizabeth Skipper knows all the lyrics to the Schoolhouse Rock song "Sufferin' Till Suffrage," and will sing them if you don't watch this movie.
"We're taxed without representation. We're not allowed to serve on juries, so we're not tried by our peers. It's unconscionable, not to mention unconstitutional. We don't make the laws, but we have to obey them, like children."
As a woman who votes, is politically knowledgeable, and considers herself a feminist, I am ashamed of myself for never having given even a passing thought to the story behind the 19th Amendment. Not until Iron Jawed Angels showed up on my docket did I stop to wonder how it happened. And not until then did I realize just how different my life would be if it hadn't happened.
Facts of the Case
"We have forgotten the history of our country if we have forgotten how to agitate when it is necessary." (Woodrow Wilson)
Alice Paul (Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry) and her cohort, Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor, Mansfield Park), are tired of waiting for the right to vote. After all, the idea was first brought up 40 years previously by Susan B. Anthony and company, and stalled with the advent of the Civil War. Since then, women have been working for suffrage state by state, believing that a Constitutional amendment similar to the 15th, which gave black men the right to vote, is an unattainable goal. But Alice and Lucy, young and fired up from an apprenticeship with British suffragists, disagree. They get permission from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its leader, Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston, Daddy Day Care), to hold a parade in support of women's suffrage in Washington D.C. on Woodrow Wilson's inauguration day.
What starts out as a peaceful motivational event soon becomes a bloody riot, with the police turning a blind eye to the violence. Still, the parade accomplishes Alice's goal—to grab the attention of the media, the public, and, most importantly, President Wilson. But, although he is a Democrat, Wilson will not support a Constitutional amendment, calling it a "special interest" and telling the women to "be patient." Luckily for the women who would follow them, Alice and Lucy lack such patience. Instead they form a Congressional lobbyist group and fight even harder.
Eventually, the two women engage in a new tactic—picketing the White House gates every day from dawn to dusk. The protest progresses civilly enough, with Wilson waving to the women as he enters and exits, until the country declares war on Germany and enters World War I. Suddenly, the women are picketing a wartime president, which many equate with treason. They continue on, though, made more determined by the realization that Wilson wants to bring democracy and freedom to all in Germany but will not support the same values at home. Having broken no laws, Alice and Lucy are arrested and charged with obstructing traffic. When they refuse to pay the $10 fine, they are sentenced to 60 days in prison. Still the protests continue, with more women arrested each day.
I'll stop here, aware that you know the women eventually succeed in getting a Constitutional amendment passed, but believing you'd like to savor the details for yourself.
"Forward out of darkness, leave behind the night.
For many reasons—but mostly because the most important Presidential election of many our lifetimes is just days away at this writing, and because 22 million unmarried women and over half of American women ages 18 to 35 did not vote in 2000—women need to understand the struggle that preceded their right to vote. They need to understand what life was like before that right existed. Iron Jawed Angels explains it in terms anyone can understand. With the use of recent music and modern cinematography, the filmmakers have done what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare—made it accessible and relevant to the young (and young-ish) people who need it most. They have given color to the sepia tones of history.
At times, I believe, they may have given it a bit too much color, favoring style over substance. While the story is compelling and the dialogue satisfactory, so much of the movie is spent in musical interludes that I began to think I was watching a music video. Almost every movie relies on a music-backed montage at some point to move the story forward quickly, but any more than one indicates inexperienced and unoriginal writing. Still, the facts are given clearly and, from what I've read, reasonably accurately, so perhaps the writer and director have found a balance of style and substance befitting their subject and intended audience.
They definitely find that balance when the women are sent to prison, at which point the story is at last given the gravity and intensity it deserves. These were strong, fierce, intelligent women, and though we catch glimpses of these qualities in the first half of the movie, we mostly see Alice and Lucy as giggling girls, more sure of their fashion sense than they are of themselves. But everything changes when they are sent to prison. We finally see the extent of their power; we finally understand how such a small group of women could accomplish such a feat.
The actors in Iron Jawed Angels, as the women they portray, are really given the chance to show their chops in the second half as well. In particular, Hilary Swank displays quite a range of emotions, every last one of them believable. I also noticed Molly Parker (Deadwood) as the supporting character of Emily Leighton, a Senator's wife. Parker's character—a fabricated figure, we learn from the commentary—undergoes a somewhat radical transformation of spirit from the first half to the second, and Parker leads us through the change seamlessly. The rest of the cast is solidly talented and cohesive, helping form this textbook chapter into a relatable story.
The disc's audio and video transfers maintain the high standards set by the film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track makes exceptional use of the surrounds and subwoofer (or at least exceptional when compared to other discs in this genre, not so much when compared to, say, The Matrix). The swell of the music in the parade scene—starting with the front speakers, then adding the surrounds, and then finally kicking in the bass—is an impressive example of how 5.1 sound can be used effectively in unexpected ways. The 1.78:1 anamorphic video transfer is praiseworthy as well, with solid blacks and colors that are alternately bright and more muted, as appropriate for the scene. I saw not a single error.
Sadly, the disc's bonus features do not pay the homage to this story that the directing, cinematography, acting, and transfers do. The only extras included are an audio commentary with director Katja von Garnier and screenwriter Sally Robinson, and an ad for HBO Films. The commentary is informative and somewhat entertaining, and, if it had been combined with at least a couple of featurettes and maybe a deleted scene or two, it would have been perfectly acceptable. As the sole feature, it doesn't pass the test.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"'Give me liberty or give me death,' Patrick Henry, an American
In this movie, Alice is given a fledgling romance with political cartoonist Ben Weissman (Patrick Dempsey, Sweet Home Alabama). According to the audio commentary, he is another completely fictional character, created to give Alice a (sort of) love interest. But the relationship never goes anywhere because Alice refuses to spare any energy from the fight to give to love, and I'm not sure why Ben's there in the first place. Perhaps it was to demonstrate to the audience just how devoted Alice was to this movement. I think we're smart enough to figure that out on our own.
Admittedly, I am pleased that Ben remained such a minor character. Any other movie would have made him the focus, and would have brought the couple together at the end to show that passion for a cause does not have to supercede passion for a man. Now that I know Ben never existed, though, his presence seems unnecessary. Why should a story about women's fight for equality need a man at all?
You must see this movie, not because it is so groundbreaking or so artistic or so anything that it can't be missed, but because its story can't be missed. Sure, you could learn the history from books or from the Internet, and probably more comprehensively, but why not be entertained along the way? However you choose, please don't let another election pass you by without knowing how fragile your right to vote in it really is.
The charges of obstructing traffic have been found without merit and dropped. Iron Jawed Angels and all others arrested for the cause are free to continue their work.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Katja von Garnier and Screenwriter Sally Robinson
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