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Iron Jawed Angels:

Today's Yesterday

Iron Jawed Angels (2004) Starring Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, and Anjelica Huston. Directed by Katja von Garnier. Written by Jennifer Friedes, Sally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick Singer, and Raymond Singer.

Young people today often get slammed as apathetic. Why aren't they more interested in the world around them? some ask. I suspect one reason is that the world around them keeps insulting youth, and young people feel powerless to do anything about it. Many young people tell me, "Why should I bother to follow the news or think about issues? It doesn't mater what I think. I can't even vote." This is why we need movies about the real life heroes who have changed things even without being allowed to vote. We need movies like Iron Jawed Angels.

Iron Jawed Angels DVD

While Hollywood has its share of political activists, the stories Hollywood adds to our culture tend to shun activism. Movies celebrate heroes who change the world by shooting a spy or blowing up a spaceship. Heroes who get involved in politics and change the world for real are ignored, vilified, or re-imagined. Pop culture portrays Rosa Parks as "just a seamstress" who had politics thrust upon her when a bus driver told her to move. They hide like a dirty secret the fact that she was a political activist well aware that the civil rights community had considered launching a boycott over previous cases of blacks refusing to give up seats, and they were now looking for a resister who would fit Parks' profile. The film Born on the Fourth of July offers a hero who becomes a war protester reluctantly after first hating protesters. A TV movie once portrayed even Martin Luther King as someone who just wanted to preach in a church but was dragged into politics.

Iron Jawed Angels stands virtually alone in unapologetically celebrating political activism and showing how to do it. Angels tells the story of Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank), one of the first to organize a picket line at the White House. She fought for women's suffrage, and historians give her much of the credit for its achievement.

White House protest  
Quoting the President's words. (click pic to enlarge)
While none of the major characters in Iron Jawed Angels is younger than 18, teenagers can easily identify with these women, denied the right to vote, denied control over any substantial money, their interests dismissed by condescending politicians. During World War I, feminists bitterly watched President Woodrow Wilson talk about the need for democracy in Germany, while ignoring those denied democratic representation here in America. Recent "minors" who heard President Bush talk about Iraq's need for democracy can identify.

The filmmakers here did not intend an allegory about youth today. This film, in fact, has its share of ageism. In one scene, Swank complains, "We don't make the laws, but we have to obey them — like children." This line is not meant to promote solidarity between women and children, but to denounce it, to insist being lumped in with children is an insult.

In a fictional subplot, Swank swallows her dignity in order to win over a newspaper cartoonist. Her ultimate indignity is tying a little boy's shoe while he watches with a smirk. Later, a different boy is pushed by older girls into showing support for women's suffrage, but this is portrayed as a good thing. Children serving adults, it seems, is fine, while adults serving children is not.

But while the filmmakers did not intend to embrace youth rights, a story often has power beyond the storyteller's intention. At its core, Iron Jawed Angels stands up for those denied self-government, for those denied personal choices by a majority that claims to love them and want to "protect" them. It shows how those who are denied power can nevertheless take power and change the world. This serves young viewers regardless of the filmmakers' intentions.

It is to the filmmakers' credit that they keep Alice Paul a complex character. They do not portray her as a saint or as larger than life. They show her hindered by her poor people skills and failure to appreciate her supporters' effort. They show her struggle with self-doubt. This is more honest than the portraits found in most high school history books.

  Hilary Swank as Alice Paul
Hilary is hot! (click pic to enlarge)
The filmmakers are also honest about the in-fighting that tends to hurt social movements. Iron Jawed Angels accurately portrays young Alice Paul's bruising conflicts with an older generation of feminists who held to different strategies. Carrie Chapman Catt (played here by Anjelica Huston) kept trying to make friends with those in power, while the younger feminists led by Paul were impatient and eager to fight back against those in power. Every major social movement divides into the moderates and the militants, and this often allows the movement to play a natural good-cop-bad-cop on the establishment. Angels accurately shows that Paul pressured Wilson to support women's suffrage while Catt allowed him to do so without looking like he was knuckling under to Paul's harassment.

Director Katja von Garnier also deserves credit for making a period piece that is neither stuffy nor nostalgic, keeping it fresh with a modern look and soundtrack. Variety's cranky critic described it as having "a comically anachronistic use of period music on the soundtrack and flashy, MTV-style montage sequences," but this complaint is itself comical. Anachronistic? Because it uses modern filmmaking techniques? The film takes place before 1920. Had the film used only techniques available in that time, it would be a silent film in black and white. Perhaps he thinks westerns should only be shown in nickelodeons. I imagine him interrupting The Passion of the Christ to scream, "Hey! They didn't have Dolby sound back then! What a joke!" Kidding aside, I'm sure that critic has no problem with filmmaking techniques he grew up with and considers timeless, but techniques that have come along since he grew old he sees as new and unfamiliar. Ms. von Garnier risked the discomfort of old audiences to make the film more comfortable for young audiences. How sad that critics would denounce such a choice as 'comical.'

Every person fed up with second-class citizenship should watch this engaging film that tells how real people make a real difference even without being able to vote.

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