I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on the subtleties of film distribution. I just watch the movies and react to them. But it’s telling and more than a little ironic that a documentary about sexism and misogyny in the entertainment business isn’t getting a traditional theatrical roll out. This Changes Everything, directed by Tom Donahue and executive produced by Geena Davis, will be seen in theaters for one night only on July 22nd, 2019 as part of a Fathom Events special screening on 800 screens across the U.S.
Those screenings, in conjunction with the documentary’s availability on streaming platforms, has the potential to create a lot of buzz for a movie with a vitally important message. But it also has the potential to fizzle in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenario. Let’s hope the latter doesn’t happen.
The facts Donahue and Davis explore, the myriad talent they get on camera to speak about the subject, and the compelling story they tell make for required viewing to understand the history of gender discrimination and sexism in the entertainment industry.
The facts come mostly from Davis’ groundbreaking organization, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Founded in 2004, Davis realized that in order to affect the change she wanted to see, she needed more than just anecdotal stories about how female representation in the media harms girls and women. She needed data. So, her organization set about collecting cold, hard facts. The institute has tracked everything from the difference in the percentage of time female and male characters appear on screen to the 105% increase in interest in archery from girls in the wake of movies like Brave and The Hunger Games. This proves girls can be just as empowered as boys when they see themselves represented on screen.
There are also plenty of stories in This Changes Everything from women who have experienced in their own careers how our culture’s sexism is reinforced by the entertainment we consume. Actors like Reese Witherspoon and Chloë Grace Moretz talk about how an overwhelming majority of female characters in movies and TV shows only serve to fulfill the male characters’ goals. Because the vast number of those at the top of the power structure (studio heads, directors, writers) are male, that’s usually the only perspective we see.
Donahue does an outstanding job of exploring the issue from both a historical and intersectional lens. The film makes a Marxist feminist critique of the way moneyed interests shut women out of the filmmaking process in the industry’s early days. The film also recounts how, in the infancy of cinema – before “Hollywood,” before the banks realized the profit possibilities of the movies – women flourished as storytellers.
Trailblazing directors like Dorothy Arzner and Alice Guy-Blaché – a filmmaker whom This Changes Everything doesn’t mention – were seen as equals to their male counterparts. The doc makes the case that as soon as the pictures became big business – right around the dawn of the sound era in the late 1920s – those who controlled the money (white men) closed ranks, excluding anyone who didn’t look like them.
The “white” is just as important as the “men” in the above parenthetical aside, and This Changes Everything takes care to include the voices of women of color in the story. Julie Dash, who made Daughters of the Dust, a film that critics are reappraising as one of the most important art films of the late 20th century and centers a black family of former slaves living in early 1900s South Carolina, is one of those women. She relates how successfully completing a film did nothing to open doors to future projects.
That sentiment is echoed by one of Dash’s white counterparts, Kimberly Peirce. Her 1999 film, Boys Don’t Cry, was a critical and financial success, yet it took Peirce nine years to get her next project funded and made.
These female artists must constantly battle the perception that audiences aren’t interested in women’s stories, even though women make up 50% of those audiences. Jill Soloway, creator of the television series Transparent, makes a cutting observation when she correctly states that women “have been otherized by men.” And when men have all the control over what stories are told, that leaves women’s stories similarly otherized.
While This Changes Everything focuses on the hard work that lies ahead to gain true gender equity in the entertainment industry, it’s also careful to highlight some of the successes, so as not to leave us in despair. One example is stunning in its revelation of the transformation that’s possible when those in power wake up to the problem.
John Landgraf, the president of cable television property FX had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion when he learned his network was dead last in diversity. He completely restructured his talent acquisition process to factor in gender and race parity. Over the course of a year, FX went from 89% of all shows produced by the company being headed by white men to 49% being headed by women.
And while a story like that is powerful, the film also makes the point that we can’t rely only on good intentions to be our saviors. Laws change hearts and minds. That’s why the legal actions brought forth by the ACLU and spearheaded by film director Maria Giese that challenge Hollywood’s hiring practices as a violation of Title VII of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are so important.
Geena Davis has been quoted as saying about the problem of gender discrimination in Hollywood, “We really can’t do this without men.” Men – especially men with power – must engage in the work of broadening who we see represented on screen. This Changes Everything is an important addition to the dialog in the ongoing conversation about making sure they do so. As actor Meryl Streep says of this idea in the best quote of the documentary, “It’s the chivalry of the 21st century.”
Why it got 4 stars:
- This Changes Everything is a pretty standard talking-heads style documentary. What elevates it is the deep dive into the history of sex discrimination in the entertainment industry and its care to include voices of color in the discussion. It’s informative, angry, and inspiring all at the same time.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a potent sting to seeing movies you love (of which there were many for me) in the montages featuring stories by, for, and about men that push the female characters to the background.
- There is a fascinating bit of history covered in the documentary that I didn’t even touch on. In the early 1980s there were six women in the industry (referred to in the doc as “The Original Six”) who were fed up with men stymieing their careers. Before computing power or algorithms could help in the research, they put pencil to paper and discovered that between 1949 and 1979, one-half of one percent of all directing assignments from the major studios were given to women. When the Directors Guild of America found out about their work, and that they were pushing for change, the DGA did something unconscionable. They gagged their own members from speaking about the issue. I’m pro-union, but that is a shameful example of a union wielding its power to hurt its own members.
- As strongly as I encourage people to see This Changes Everything, I’m afraid they made a fatal error when choosing a title. There is another documentary with the same title that was released just four years ago that is based on the Naomi Klein book about climate change. A Google search brings up results that are almost exclusively about the earlier doc. The producers of this documentary have done themselves no favors in bringing attention to their film with the title.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I watched this with a screener link from the studio in order to write about it before the one-day release in theaters, so I saw this from the comfort of my home theater. I plan on buying a ticket on July 22nd, 2019, though, to support the cause, and I suggest you do, too!