Iron Jawed Angels (2004)


During the early portion of the 1900's, American women across the nation were fighting for the right to vote. Seven states conceded but it was not enough. Iron Jawed Angels revolves around the women who made front page headlines and changed the face of national politics forever.


The idealistic Alice Paul (Hillary Swank) and her best friend Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor) have come to Washington to obtain permission from the National American Woman Suffrage Association to hold a suffragist parade on the inauguration day of President Woodrow Wilson. Support is reluctantly given by the skeptical president of the organization, Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston). For many years, NAWSA has been fighting for the vote state by state, believing a constitutional amendment is an unattainable goal, but Alice and Lucy feel differently. Hoping the parade will gain the attention of the president and sway his favor toward their cause, they proceed in spite of the potential danger. What begins as a peaceful demonstration turns into a riot in which the police show no interest in intervention, but it gains them the newspaper coverage needed in order to launch their appeal to a national platform.


Concerned with their shenanigans and disapproving that the immense amounts of funds they are raising have not been run through NAWSA, Mrs. Chapman Catt suspends Alice and Lucy pending an investigation. The women take that opportunity to fund their own separate organization whose sole purpose is to gain the amendment. Their courageous public actions earn the interest of Emily Leighton (Molly Parker), the wife of a newly elected congressmen, but her political status and her husband's dark opinion of the movement prevent her from open participation. In the meantime, as war rages in Europe the suffragettes face persecution, police brutality, and outrageous offenses as they fight for basic human rights.


If you are familiar with the movement it will be a delight to see familiar names come to life, but if you have no knowledge of these events, you will be shocked not only at the tremendous chauvinism these women came up against, but the methods used in an attempt to silence them. HBO starts with a tremendous cast and then incorporates a unique approach that includes modern music. I was doubtful that the score could work but it becomes very playful and meaningful and the song at the end is guaranteed to moisten more than a few eyes. The script is fabulous at making all these women inspiring and human at the same time. There are several little touches that are especially sweet, including a purple hat that becomes a point of argument on several occasions. The only time it founders is with the romance, which is under-developed and thrown in for no real purpose other than the inclusion of a male lead. But the leading ladies are wonderful and most of them will be well-known to any viewer familiar with costume dramas. You will find faces from major Hollywood films and BBC miniseries alike.


Unfortunately, there are a few things that sour the experience. Language is almost nonexistent but does include two abuses of Jesus' name. There is some brutality in prison in which the women are slapped, shoved around, hung from the bars of their cell, and force-fed with tubes when they refuse to eat. The process is painful and hard to watch. The camera lingers on nude backsides as the women are stripped in prison. Two women passionately kiss one another to shock a congressman. There are several rude hand gestures and various sexual innuendos. The most disgusting scene is one in which the heroine pleasures herself in a bathtub. It is not graphically depicted but the audience has no doubt what is happening. I found it an unattractive and degrading addition that the real life Alice Paul would not have appreciated. (Nor I think would she have liked her character taking Jesus' name in vain.


It's is unfortunate that HBO feels it has the right to taint historic events with perversion (expounding on the sexual immorality in Rome, and incorporating inappropriate sexual content into the John Adams miniseries) and make them unfit for high school educational programs, but in spite of these faults the film is very good. It shows the suffragettes for what they were -- women who wanted the right to vote. They did not hate men or support any sort of agenda beyond equal rights. In fact, many of these women went on in their later years to support the war effort and disapproved of where "feminism" eventually ended (with abortion). Unfortunately, the movie does not cast much light on their religious beliefs, but it is the most brutal and honest depiction of the horrors women endured merely to have the right to enter a voting station. It is a movie you will most likely never forget. I know I won't. 

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