HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Screenwriter: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/20/22
Opens: June 8, 2022

Nebraska’s governor announced in May that he will sign a bill to make abortion illegal even if the victim has been raped or made fertile through incest. Why stop there? Why not introduce a bill to make contraception unlawful since, after all, the unborn baby in the condom is winking at daddy? Happily the sane states will make the procedure easier on women who to not have the money to travel to a blue entity. Then again, the rational people will find a way to deal with the lifting of Roe v Wade as did the brave women in “The Janes,” a documentary about a network which was not unlike that of Harriet Tubman and the heroes who, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave act of 1850, provided a way to transport enslaved people to Canada.

There is a difference, however, between the brave people establishing the underground railroad in the mid-nineteenth century and the right-thinking women who circumvented the law in Chicago to ease the ending of pregnancies. Everybody, it seems, knew about the existence of the society called The Janes (the name chosen because few women used that name for their children). But the cops in Chicago had other things to do than arrest them for a procedure that, according to this doc, nobody particularly cared about. Chicago was the scene of murders during the seventies just as it is now, the police dilemmas multiplied greatly by political movements going on in the Windy City. Anti-war protests during the last three months of the hideous Vietnam War were abounding, the young people protesting loudly in the streets occasionally beaten by the cops. The Black Panthers were roaring against injustices to Black people while at the same time providing assistance such as free breakfasts for school children. Although as one officer notes humorously, just about everyone in the police force was Irish Catholic, so you might think they would take anti-abortion laws more seriously. But they did not.

Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are obviously pro-choice, choosing their subjects carefully. They are mostly women now in the sixties and seventies, all with memories intact, enthusiastically talking about their experiences, their reminiscences hinting that these were their salad days. At one point, when the law was taken more seriously in Illinois, a number of them were arrested, terrified of upcoming jail time, some eager to run to the district attorney to turn states’ evidence and get off with a warning. Happily for all, they had a terrific attorney—a bright woman who, unlike the male lawyers, was not condescending—getting them off by issuing motion after motion to stall. Why? Roe v Wade to be decided momentarily, and the Supreme Court—real justices this time, not people appointed by an ignorant, pandering president—declared the laws against abortion in the first trimester unconstitutional in all states. (New York State had legalized abortion one year before Roe.)

As for the actual procedure, virtually none of the illegal abortions were provided by MDs. In one case, a male who at the time was a construction worker, recalls his role as an ersatz gynecologist with pride. Women were driven to various locations in the city, told to keep their clothes near, ready for quick exits should Mayor Daley’s cops raid the apartments.

Much of the documentary is dishwater-dull, really taking off only when the subjects excitedly talked about their trepidations when the police finally did barge in, leading the women to throw their surgical instruments out of the window but to no avail.

Do the producers not trust the audience to pay close attention, even to those parts that are more mundane? The soundtrack is loaded with elevator music, with emphasis on the bass fiddle and a tinkling piano, as though we had unwittingly allowed a concert on another channel to interfere with “The Janes.” Just watch the difference during those moments when the subjects are allowed to speak unmolested by the orchestra that appears to play somewhere in the background.

Looking forward, it’s nice to know that after the Supreme Court by a 6-3 or 5-4 vote declares that Roe v Wade was “incorrectly argued” and must be overturned, that there are still rational states in our fragile union that respect women’s rights to their own bodies. Organizations will spring up, just as did the Janes during the seventies, to finance trips by poor women to those areas that still respect reproductive rights, and perhaps efforts will be made to get mifepristone and misoprostol into their hands for “emergency contraception.” In other words, the anti-choice people have won this battle in the Supreme Court but will lose their war.

102 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – D (soundtrack music)
Overall – B

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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