Last night, I watched a movie on HBO Max that I've been wanting to hit Play on for a short while now. No, I didn't get to experience an amazing action movie or a lovely romantic drama. In fact, I ditched escapism all together.
Instead, I watched a documentary called The Janes that's quite timely. Released earlier this month (June 8, 2022), The Janes is a film about the group of women in Chicago who did what was necessary to aid and enable those who needed abortions. The film's arrival was all-too well-timed, as it appeared shortly after the leaked United States Supreme Court draft that revealed the court would be overturning Roe v. Wade, which was reported in early May.
The Janes tells us women dealt with abortion in the United States before Roe v. Wade seemingly settled this debate in 1973. And it's a story that is ever-more relevant now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the current Supreme Court.
Oh, and The Janes also earned an impressive 100% score from Rotten Tomatoes, so I'm not the only one that's recommending it. Of course, many might find this film too raw and unnerving, but for those who feel like they do not know enough about the topic, The Janes is a must-watch.
What is The Janes?
The Janes is a documentary film with a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes. It tells the story of a collective that went by the name Jane for the sake of anonymity. Aiding abortion at the time was a dangerous risk for the freedoms of these women, but the film shows how it was incredibly necessary for the Janes to get involved.
One woman had to call the mob for help getting an abortion, and the prices for these illegal abortions went as high as $1,000. As The Janes explains more about the doctors who sometimes aided folks in need of abortions, we learn that not all doctors were actually acting appropriately. One demanded sexual favors. Another held a knife to a woman's throat. And all of this history has been kept in the records, as The Janes bring their notes to the film.
Largely told with present day interviews (with some older, recorded conversations), The Janes presents the story of pre-Roe v. Wade abortion with a lot of stock footage. But that's not a negative at all, when the conversations are so strong.
The interviews at the heart of The Janes bring equal parts humor and honesty to the conversation. And each tells their story with a certain plainness, grounding their experiences. This, I think, may be the most important part of The Janes: it presents the conversation of abortion as a sort of matter-of-fact, something that people shouldn't hide.
That said, things often get harrowing and alarming. The aforementioned mob-enabled abortion is told by a woman named Dorie Barron, who talks about how cold and unnerving the situation was. She was sent to a motel on the wrong side of town, told "all of three sentences" the entire time, and you feel for her as a victim of the system.
What critics think of The Janes
As mentioned above, The Janes currently has a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. For The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden wrote that the those interviewed for The Janes provide "commentary is astute and vivid, ranging from the humorous to the harrowing," and that "There isn’t an unmemorable interview in the film."
Richard Roeper, for the Chicago Sun-Times, agreed, writing that "Now in their 70s, a number of Jane members tell their stories with admirable candor, great heart and a dash of humor here and there."
Kate Erbland at IndieWire wrote that "Lessin, Pildes, and their many subjects eschew cheap emotion in favor of something much more intimate and, ultimately, more honest."
Melanie McFarland at Salon wrote "Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes permeate The Janes with unforced wry humor that adds a triumphant glow to a story that other filmmakers may have presented as a grim struggle." She also brings up one of the few downsides of the film, saying that it "glosses over the very narrow scope of its testimonials, making it difficult to ignore the whiteness of its perspective in the film's first half." Though she also notes that "Part of this is a structural issue," as it takes 50 minutes for the film to acknowledge that the "women running the network were primarily white."
Should you watch The Janes tonight?
One of the most compelling aspects of The Janes is how those interviewed come across as extremely ordinary. A person being interviewed could remind you of your own mother or aunt, another of a school teacher who helped you do better. Right now, while emotions are rightfully high and strong about this topic, some may need a reminder that this effects all.
To learn that The Janes were helping 30 women per day, three times per week, and doing so under the threat of criminal charges and going to jail, is to properly contextualize the mental burden they undertook to do what they believed was the right thing. If anyone believes criminalizing abortion will end abortion, watching The Janes will give them another point of view: that it will only lead to less safety for those involved.
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