Director: Phyllis Nagy (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Chicago, August 1968. The Democratic Party Convention is in full swing, but we’re nearby at a lawyers’ convention. Everyone is dressed in tuxedos and expensive dresses. We follow one woman who makes towards the exit, where we hear the muffled voices of protestors. A policeman who is part of the phalanx guarding the building tells the women – lets call her Joy, as that’s her name – that it’s the Yippies. In the background, we hear the chant “The Whole World is Watching”.
Joy returns into the building, so we don’t see the protestors, save for the outline of one being smashed against the front door by a cop. The protests outside the Democratic Convention – and their savage repression by police – was a key event in the growth of the 1968 movement in the USA. It had me thinking, whose perspective is this film going to show? That of the people safely inside the Convention or of the protestors being beaten outside? We’ll come to the answer later.
Joy has settled into a life of homemaker and unpaid secretary for her hotshot lawyer husband. They have an apparently perfect life with one daughter who has just reached puberty and another baby on the way. One day, Joy takes out her dansette record player and looks for a suitable LP. She ignores albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Shangri-Las and plumps for the Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat.
There is a paper waiting to be written on the use of Velvet Underground songs in films set in the 1960s. In John Sayles’s great Baby It’s You, the soundtrack at the start of the film largely consists of girl groups – great songs but nothing too dangerous. Then, suddenly, someone plays Venus in Furs at a student party. Put on a Velvet Underground song, and suddenly the safe complacency of the Eisenhower years is replaced by the sign of social upheaval (it’s just a theory).
Anyway, while Joy is dancing to the Velvet Underground, she collapses, and is taken to hospital. The doctor tells her that if she has the baby, she only has a 50% chance of survival. He recommends appealing to the medical board for what he calls a “therapeutic termination”. The board – which consists entirely of white men – tell Joy that as her baby is likely to survive the birth, they won’t allow her to have a medical abortion.
After unsuccessfully following some leads, Joy ends up on the wrong side of town (cue catcalling men), where she sees a poster telling women needing an abortion to Call Jane. She dials the number, and finds a women’s collective run by Virginia. After the collective helps Joy have an abortion, she becomes more involved in their work. Scared of telling her husband and daughter what she’s up to, she explains her increased absences by saying that she’s started a new art class.
Call Jane is righteous, but it does make the occasional misstep. For reasons which can’t be fully explained without revealing plot spoilers, Virginia suddenly sacks Dr. Dean, the doctor who has been performing the abortions. Her reason: “Marxist men are worse than the pigs”. Now Dean is no Marxist – the money he receives has paid for his swimming pool, and he is motivated by greed, not sympathy for desperate women. So it is not that they have no reasons to sack him.
But this decision, at this point of the film, is just stupid. It comes just 5 minutes after the women have listed case after case – of rape victims, 11 year olds and humanitarians, who they cannot help because they just don’t have the resources. I’m not saying that Virginia’s decision, based on both identity politics and uneven power relationships within the collective, is inexplicable, but the fact that she is able to say this without any contradiction reinforces the idea that men are the problem.
But maybe not all men. The film ends, as it probably should, with the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling, which finally overturned the abortion ban in the USA. This was the product of years of campaigning by a movement led by women, which included the real life Janes but also – notwithstanding the movement’s sexism – some Marxist men. One group that the movement did not include was high court judges, who are the only people the film gives explicit credit.
Virginia goes as far as to toast the 7 supreme court justices who voted for Roe vs Wade, and on one level, they did bring the act into law. But their decision was not an inexplicable change of opinion. It was entirely influenced by a movement which has started in the Civil Right Struggles, developed through the struggle against the Vietnam War (which drove the protests outside the Democrat Convention) then channelled into groups like the National Organisation of Women.
Call Jane largely ignores these movements and prefers to show the POV of a rich, white woman. We do see occasional interventions from Gwen, the only Black woman in the group. Gwen complains that working-class Black women are largely excluded from their actions, and specifically notes a patronising attitude towards the Black Panther women. But even these interventions are seen through the middle class perspective of Joy and Virginia, who dismisses the Panthers as “batshit”.
Even Joy’s lawyer husband Will, who for 90% of the film has supported women’s right to do anything, while expecting his meals on the table at the correct time, is seamlessly integrated into the campaign, defending them in court, and persuading his rich friends to donate money. This shows where Dear Jane believes that change really happens.
Call Jane should be celebrated for highlighting an often forgotten righteous cause, but it has no sense of social movements. The film opens an important debate, without necessarily having convincing solutions. The best way to pay it respect is to engage with its limitations – as critically as we can.