Overview: Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) start the National Woman’s Party (NWP) after a falling out with the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) over their approach to lobbying for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing female citizens the right to vote. HBO; 2004; 125 minutes.
“Simply, women were not viewed as an integral part of the historical record.” – Judith P. Zinsser: It’s incumbent upon the citizens of any free nation to understand and perpetuate the stories of those people that made them free, and so we, in the United States, see film after film about the American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, all of the other wars, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, etc., etc. When it comes to films about the fight to guarantee roughly fifty percent of the adult population a say in the government under which they live, however, the United States has literally one option: Iron Jawed Angels.
Somehow, the abuses Alice Paul and her Silent Sentinels faced at the hands of ordinary citizens, the US government, and police–all suffered simply to secure women the same voice as men in their government–have been almost entirely overlooked by Hollywood. A pivotal moment in the history of the US as a free nation is simply ignored, and we’re left with one made-for-TV movie that, though it has a cast of talented and dedicated women who clearly thought it was important, is made less impactful by distracting directorial and editorial choices. It’s almost unfair to critique the film at all, because, well, at least they made it.
“It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” – Marilyn Monroe: At the beginning of Iron Jawed Angels, we meet Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, college-educated American suffragists fresh from a stint in the UK, where they learned aggressive tactics from the UK suffragettes. They flip a coin over who gets to buy a hat in a shop window; for reasons not clear to the audience, this hat is supposed to be significant, and reappears throughout the film. Here we have distraction #1: the hat. The viewer will spend time thinking, “but why such a focus on the hat??” Let’s move on to distraction #2: the music. For the first part of the film, action is set to music that would be at home in a 1980s rom-com, but not a period piece set in the early twentieth century. This is a confusing choice. Perhaps modern music was chosen to reflect the modern ideas of our heroines, but regardless of the reasoning, the result is jarring. Along with the music are equally disconcerting cuts and increased frame rates that make the viewer wonder if what they are seeing is intentional or a streaming issue they need to take up with their internet provider–distraction #3.
“Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.” – Helen Keller: Fortunately, the style of the film calms down as the story progresses, and by the second half the audience is permitted to become absorbed in the struggle of the suffragettes for a voice in the government under which they live. Here, the cast is allowed to shine, and their talent in combination with some good writing leads to some fairly impactful and inspiring scenes. We feel frustrated and angry as Alice and Lucy are patronized by NAWSA and President Wilson himself; we cheer for the fictional senator’s wife whose mind is awakened by Alice’s biting criticism of complacency; we are horrified when a tube is shoved down Alice Paul’s throat and she is violently force-fed during her hunger strike. When the story is allowed to stand on its own, and the actors can get on with their work, the film becomes successful. It shows us the strength of women. It teaches us that we owe freedoms we take for granted to women who fought tooth and nail for those freedoms. It provides context, so that we are reminded that the president under whom the amendment was passed, Woodrow Wilson, had to see the political advantage before he would make a moving speech about granting America’s women a right that should have been theirs to begin with.
The material on which the film is based is rich, and considering the scope of the movement and constraints of a TV movie, Iron Jawed Angels handles it well. The film doesn’t feel rushed, nor is its impact diminished by cramming in every detail about the WPA and their lobbying. Its primary weaknesses are its attempt to shrug the style of a period piece by using modern music and rapid cuts–inconsistently–and the unaccountable focus on that hat. There’s also a forgettable non-romance between Alice Paul and the character played by Patrick Dempsey, but as it is used to demonstrate Alice’s commitment to her cause (she rejects romance in favor of her mission), it at least serves a purpose.
“Your willingness to look at your darkness is what empowers you to change.” –Iyanla Vanzant: The material is handled well, that is, but for one piece–the segregation of black suffragettes to the back of the parade that begins Alice Paul’s activism in Washington, D.C. At one point during the film, Ida Wells-Barnett, a black suffragette, appears and declares that she will march with her peers or not at all during the woman suffrage parade. We see her one more time, during the parade, when she joins the white women at the front. This was based on true events, although the argument between Alice Paul and Ida Wells-Barnett was a fabrication purely for the movie. The two scenes are the only times race is addressed during the film, and the way it is done seems like an afterthought. We know that the women’s movement has, historically, overlooked women of color, and this is important to acknowledge in a film about suffrage. The invented argument between Alice and Ida, however, gives white women an out–it seems to say that Alice Paul, given the chance at the time, could have been convinced that suffrage should not ignore issues of race. But we don’t know that. Include the detail about the segregation of black suffragettes to the back of the parade, but do it without giving Alice Paul and the white suffragettes a moment of redemption on that score. Do not give white women a pass on their complicity in the continued marginalization of the black woman in America, even while they gain historic ground in the fight for women’s equality, generally.
Conclusion: On the whole, however, Iron Jawed Angels leaves the viewer feeling triumphant and vaguely angry that suffrage was ever a debate in the U.S. and that this is the only feature film we have about it. The writing is pretty good. The cast of women is talented. The platform and production… are disappointing.