“This Changes Everything” is an important yet flawed story of sexism in Hollywood

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Meryl Streep in "This Changes Everything." (Courtesy photo)
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By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]

One of the highlighted movies in this year’s Alexandria Film Festival, “This Changes Everything” makes a compelling case that discrimination against women in Hollywood is systemic and epidemic.

The documentary presents data from thorough research that is combined with absorbing testimonies from stars including Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Geena Davis. The film details the extent of discrimination in Hollywood, particularly against women directors, as well as attempts to remedy the problem during the past 25 years.

Unfortunately, there are several serious problems with the film – length, absent voices, repetitiveness and unnecessary politicization – that detract from its impact. Plus, a documentary about the plight of women directors in Hollywood should not have been directed by a man.

The documentary explains that women played prominent roles in the nascent days of filmmaking. For instance, Lois Weber was a silent film actress, screenwriter, director and producer whose body of work in quality and quantity has been favorably compared to that of D.W. Griffith from the same era.

The advent of talking films turned movie making into a big business, with banks financing large studios. Institutionalized discrimination from those male-run organizations quickly followed as women were objectified and excluded from positions of power. Often, only the names of male directors were on lists provided by studios to those wanting to produce a film.

“When something gets lucrative and important, it becomes a man’s job,” actor Alan Alda said in describing the exclusion of women in the movie industry.

By the late 1970s, a group of frustrated women directors decided they’d had enough, as attempts at progress through voluntary compliance were not working. The directors decided real change would only come with legal action.

As members of the Directors Guild of America, the women directors had access to that organization’s archives, and spent a year combing through old records. They discovered that between 1949 and 1979, only half of 1 percent of all directing assignments had gone to women.

This research formed the basis of a lawsuit the women filed in 1983 against studios and production companies. The suit was thrown out by a female judge.

Each time it seemed a breakthrough event had occurred that would change everything for women in Hollywood – such as the early ‘90s movies “Thelma and Louise” or “A League of Their Own,”  which were both box office hits and empowering for women – the industry would revert to the male-dominated status quo.

When Davis, who starred in both movies, was watching children’s television in 2004 with her kids she was struck by how male-centric the shows were, from Bert and Ernie to Spongebob and Patrick. Davis started crunching numbers and found that four out of five narrators on children’s shows were men.

Realizing that data was the magic bullet because it could demonstrate bias, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Research done by the institute showed that 80.5 percent of characters shown in the workplace on TV and film were male.

“You have to instill an awareness,” Davis, an executive producer of “This Changes Everything,” said of the first steps in the process.

Progress continued to inch along until director Maria Giese, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2013.

While the EEOC does not publicly comment on complaints, Giese said during a Q&A at the Alexandria Film Festival that significant progress has been seen on many fronts since 2016, and she attributes that progress to EEOC action.

At 97 minutes, this film is 20 to 30 minutes too long, and the actresses and directors interviewed are repetitive. About an hour in, the woman sitting to the right of me, who I’d never met before, looked at her watch and mumbled, “It’s too long.”

Also, the voices of women directors who have found success in recent years are missing. Witherspoon, who has become a successful producer, is interviewed, but she’s not a director.

Where is Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster, who, after garnering acclaim as an actress, has directed four movies and numerous T.V. episodes? Where is Elizabeth Banks, best known for portraying Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games franchise, who is also a successful director and producer? Banks’ “Pitch Perfect 2” is the highest grossing music comedy of all time, raking in $287.5 million; it made $69.2million on its opening weekend, which is a record for a first-time director, according to Wikipedia.

Also, the film’s dig at President Donald Trump needlessly politicizes what is not a partisan issue. Trump has many well-documented failings, but he had nothing to do with the long-term mistreatment of women in Hollywood. Likewise, the women’s marches that followed Trump’s election were important milestones in the overall women’s movement, but this is not a documentary about the overall women’s movement.

Perhaps a woman director would have better presented the important information in “This Changes Everything.”

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