Movie review: Jane (2017)

So you think you know all about Jane Goodall? Maybe. Maybe not. This documentary uses 100 hours of newly discovered film shot from Jane’s early days studying chimpanzees in Gombe. The film was shot by Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. Hugo would go on to become Jane’s husband. It is interspersed with more modern film and an interview with Jane herself.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey thought that the study of chimpanzees could teach us about early man. He was looking for someone not tainted by thinking in the scientific community. He needed someone with an open mind, a love of animals, and a passion for knowledge. Jane had grown up dreaming of living in Africa among animals. She unfortunately was unable to attend university so she had no training and no degree. It was a perfect pairing.

Jane left on a six-month study of chimpanzees in Gombe. She found chimpanzees and tried to get close to them. The first five months went nowhere. At six months, the funding would run out. Thankfully she experienced a break through with the chimpanzees during the last months. The chimpanzees accepted her. Her study and observations went into high gear…and more funding followed.

This was the 1960s though. And she was a young twenty-something. A woman by herself in the wild just would not do. So her mom went with her. Yes, her mom. Her mom seems to be something of an independent woman (where else would Jane have gotten her independence?) who strongly supported and encouraged her daughter. She opened a clinic and provided medicine to African fishermen while Jane conducted her study of the chimpanzees.

Jane’s observation of the chimpanzee stood a lot of assumptions on their head. She countered the beliefs that only humans were rational, only humans had minds, only humans used tools. She disproved all of these and was attacked for it. After she observed chimpanzees fashioning tools to reach termites in order to eat them—and passing this tool-making knowledge on to other chimpanzees—a photographer was sent to capture the chimpanzees and Jane.

At first annoyed that her solitude was disturbed, Jane later found that she and Hugo (the cameraman) seemed to be two peas in a pod. After his assignment ended and he went elsewhere, he proposed and Jane accepted. Jane never dreamt of marriage, but there she was getting married. She never dreamt of having children, but there she was having a child.

Marriage and motherhood threw her a curveball. Reflecting the times, wives and mothers took second tier to their husbands’ careers. Jane was no exception. She took what turned out to be a hiatus from studying chimps to go to the Serengeti with Hugo. She wrote books and he filmed. Later she raised her son in Africa until he was school-age and then sent him to England to live with her mother while he attended school.

Although disruptive to her career, motherhood for Jane was informed by her earlier observations of an infant-mother relationship (the chimpanzees Flo and Flint). In turn, her own motherhood informed her observations of the chimpanzees.

The film shows fun times with chimpanzees. The observers became close to the chimps, touching and even grooming them. Later though this community of chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic. It was excruciating to hear about and witness—I cannot imagine the pain that Jane might have felt as she watched what happened to the chimpanzees that she had grown to known quite well.

Some of the chimpanzees suffered paralyzed limbs. Others were not affected. One in particular was euthanized to end his suffering. This was a case of the human observer interfering in the so-called normal course of nature. But Jane could not watch a chimpanzee basically die through starvation because he could not move to feed or care for himself.

The film portrays other emotional moments with the tribe. When Flo, the elder female chimpanzee whom Jane had observed over the years, died, her teenage son Flint was so distraught. He stopped eating and within 3 weeks died himself. Heartbreak seems to not just be a human trait.

Flo’s death had other consequences that deeply affected the tribe. Some split into a separate tribe and moved south. They became strangers to the original tribe. The result? When the groups interacted again, there was warfare. The southern group was obliterated. Suddenly another assumption was destroyed: chimpanzees are not the mostly docile bunch Jane and others thought they were. (Granted, she recognized that they killed other primate babies…which was a consideration when raising her own son in Africa).

Jane helped me understand more fully Goodall’s life and the important observations that she made that contributed to our understanding about ourselves and mankind. Jane never stopped doing the work that Dr. Leakey first set out to do: study chimpanzees to better understand early man. Her observations debunked so many erroneous ideas (only humans are rational, have minds, use tools, conduct warfare) and led to better understandings of ourselves (mother-infant relationships).

In many ways, Jane is a role model, a woman who lived her dreams. She tried to combined career, marriage, and motherhood, but her life again reveals how hard that is—she had to put her own research on hold and the marriage ultimately ended. Her life story is both the sad reflection of the societal limitations on women and the ways that women can and cannot overcome them.

Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Movie review: 20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women is a coming-of-age movie, for both a teenage boy and his 55-year-old mother. The movie is set in Santa Barbara in 1979. Jamie’s mom had him at what was considered an inappropriate age in the 1960s—40 years old.

But that is not the least of the ways that Dorothea stands out. She is divorced from Jamie’s father, is a working woman in a traditionally male dominated field (drafting), owns a large 1905 house that she rents to borders, including a man who is helping her renovate it. She is strong-willed and sure of herself. People do not know quite what to make of her. One guy at work asks her out and then when she accepts, he confesses that everyone thought she was lesbian. (You know, because she was so strong and independent.)

Dorothea was born in 1924, and Jamie makes excuses about her being from the Depression era. But that doesn’t really explain her. She is bohemian, wears Birkenstocks to be contemporary, drives a Volkswagen bug—it is the late 70s in California after all— and goes to punk rock clubs that she is introduced to by a twenty-something boarder. She listens to the punk rock music but returns to the jazz of her youth.

She is understanding and nonjudgmental to the ways her son rebels but puts her foot down when one boarder gives him feminist literature that he takes a shine to. Jamie wants to be a sensitive, understanding man for women in his life. He has no problem with the women around him or feminism. But his mom does. For all of her bohemian, non-conformist ways, Dorothea is a product of the 1920s.

Jamie takes to the feminism but is ironically coached by the woman who introduced him to feminism to hide his thoughts and act like one of the guys. (Especially galling in today’s environment where men stand silent and complicit in environments that produce sexual harassment and assault.)

Jamie reads about women’s sexual response and needs. When a boy at the skateboarding park brags about sex with a girl and how many times he made her climax, Jamie asks what he did to provide the necessary clitorial stimulation (because from what he had learned, intercourse would not be sufficient to produce the results that the boy describes). When he calmly surmises out loud that the girl faked it—women do this—Jamie finds himself getting beaten up. (In a seeming normal conversation with his mom, she asks what the fight was about to which he responds “clitorial stimulation”. Dorothea doesn’t bat an eye.)

Her household with her son, the male boarder who renovates her house, the female boarder who struggles with a cancer scare, and a longtime female friend to her son form an odd family unit. Dorothea explicitly calls on the female boarder and female friend to help guide Jamie and essentially raise him. It is an odd situation for all of them, especially as the women struggle with their own issues and growing up. They all confide in Jamie, pouring out their lives to him, giving him a unique perspective into the lives of women in the 1970s. Only he never gets this closeness from his mother.

Through one feminist collection of essays that Abby gives him (Sisterhood is Powerful), Jamie reads a description of what could be his mother. He reads it to her, clearly in hopes that this will break down some barriers and lead to his mother allowing him into her emotional life. Instead, Dorothea turns defensive and rejects the description. (Jamie only once succeeds in temporarily breaking through these barriers with her: after he ran off with Julie, his longtime friend and crush.)

The movie is a good microcosm into the world of the late 1970s: feminism, single moms, punk rock, more open emotional life. This leads to some interesting dialogues and some wise words. Dorothea, no dummy to things going on around her, knows of her son’s crush on Julie: “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” When Jamie asks her if she is happy (assuming that she really isn’t), she is taken aback but concludes with “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.” Even Abby, as a late twenty-something, has good advice: “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know it’s not going to be anything like that.”

As with many of these lines, the essay that Jamie reads to his mother struck me. The description seems as real now as it did when the author wrote these words in 1970. Under the pseudonym Zoe Moss, a forty-three-year-old woman wrote about the reality of being middle-aged in the US—worthless, unvalued, obsolete, and invisible in our society. (I certainly can relate. If being a woman is valued in the US at all, it is only during youth.) Whether Dorothea’s rejection of this description is really a rejection of the reality or her feelings, or her refusal to accept this view of herself, is unknown. She certainly doesn’t follow the feminist banner though often lives her life true to its values.

20th Century Women clearly focuses on Dorothea, though the movie pretends to center on Jamie. We see the dichotomies between generations and the changes happening in society from birth control to over-the-counter pregnancy tests, feminism to traditional/non-traditional roles, and alterative parenting styles and realities. The writing is entertaining and the acting superb. It was great to see Anette Bening shine.

Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.

Movie review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells a story that is long overdue. The movie, based on a book of the same name, joins the ranks of other recent media that bring to light women’s history relegated to the dustbins of time. Thank goodness for the recent craze in bringing to light women’s contributions in technology, innovation, STEM fields, and at NASA. At long last, girls and women have role models that look like them, a powerful tool in populating STEM fields with more women.

Hidden Figures goes beyond this recent fascination with women in technology. The movie shows black women using their awe-inspiring skills in mathematics at NASA during the space race. Three black women in particular fill the storyline: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson.

The movie starts with the three of them broken down by the side of the rode on their way to work. But make no mistake, these are not damsels in distress. Vaughan fixes her own car. Jackson is a spunky spit-fire ready to take on discrimination when she sees it. Johnson is a daydreaming, yet down-to-earth soft-spoken woman who takes on discrimination in the workplace and in personal relationships.

Hidden Figures brings us into their world. We see the challenges that they faced based on their sex and race. Their skills were truly amazing. Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN and then sought to learn how to run the new IBM mainframe that NASA had purchased (the same mainframe that scores of white men walked away from, scratching their heads). Jackson approaches a judge in court about being allowed to attend classes at a white school so she could eventually become an engineer. And Johnson, well, she worked on mathematical calculations to send John Glen to the moon, which required developing math that didn’t yet exist.

Of course, men for the most part at NASA were not colleagues. At best, they were indifferent to the women. At worst, they were threatened and sought to make life as difficult as possible. White women were no better, treating the highly educated, highly skilled black women computers with contempt and as hired help rather than equal colleagues.

Race laws at the time added to these difficulties, and Hidden Figures makes it very clear the hurdles and insults that these caused. Johnson is forced to run half a mile across campus to use the bathroom. No bathroom for “coloreds” existed on the part of the campus where she worked to help get John Glenn to the moon. (Finally, in one scene where the head of the group yelled at her for leaving her desk for so long, she yelled back about why. And then she was allowed to use whatever bathroom she wanted.)

In another case, Johnson, unthinking while she was working on checking some figures, walked over the coffee pot to pour herself some coffee. The next day a smaller coffee pot appeared with the label “coloreds”. She was being told her place.

The obstacles that these women faced in their daily lives and in the workplace were unreal. And it is unreal to think that this was the way of things in the US even just fifty or sixty years ago.

But Hidden Figures isn’t just about black women, discrimination, or women in technology. The movie is also a good glimpse into the early space race. The anxiety with the Soviet Union launching satellites and spaceships into space is palpable. The urgency for the US to reach the moon first comes across, an urgency that is so easy to forget. In the fifties and sixties, the US seemed to be really bent on winning through science, innovation, and space exploration. Unfortunately, we seemed to have lost that drive in the ensuing decades.

My hope is that Hidden Figures inspires. Inspires improved race relations. Inspires an increased dedication to science and innovation. Inspires girls and women. We are truly blessed for the women who struggled to attain education, build careers, and contribute to our society and our collective goals. We are doubly blessed by non-white women who strove to attain these same goals. I am in awe of them. And thankful for the men, like John Glenn, who figuratively lent support as women struggle for equality and success.