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There’s no denying the good intentions and important relevance of Kamala Lopez’s understandably angry documentary exploring the mistreatment of women in modern-day America. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be comprehensive, Equal Means Equal proves more exhausting than enlightening. Barraging the viewer with a numbing array of statistics, facts, sound bites and anecdotes, it feels more like a doctoral thesis than a documentary.
Released theatrically on Women’s Equality Day, the film makes a passionate case for reviving efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment that was narrowly defeated when the ratification deadline expired in 1982. The result is that there is no constitutional protection specifically afforded women, as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia makes clear in one of the film’s archival clips.
Lopez — a veteran actress whose previous directorial credits include A Single Woman, a 2008 documentary about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress — uses this legislative defeat as a springboard to tackle myriad issues relating to gender discrimination. The list of topics addressed is disturbingly long, including unfair treatment in the workplace, domestic violence, sex trafficking, female incarceration, rape and sexual assault and female poverty, among others. The film also explores such international issues as genital mutilation and the fact that domestic violence is not a crime in many countries.
The filmmaker conducted dozens and dozens of interviews for the film, and seems determined to include sound bites from each and every one of them. The impressive roster of subjects include such familiar faces as feminist and activist Gloria Steinem; actress and women’s rights advocate Patricia Arquette (who also executive produced); National Organization of Women president Terry O’Neill; and New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. But the director makes the mistake of inserting herself too often in the interactions, frequently cutting to close-ups in which she registers varying degrees of indignation, anger and surprise. When she’s seen at one point mournfully brushing away tears, it feels like a parody of Oprah Winfrey.
Trying to process the film’s endless recitation of legal cases would prove a challenge to even the most dedicated law student. And the heavy reliance on graphics makes the most elaborate Ted Talk seem minimalist by comparison.
The cinematic clumsiness is a shame, because Equal Means Equal makes many powerful points along its diffuse, rambling way. Here is a case in which less would definitely have been more.
Production company: Heroica Films
Director: Kamala Lopez
Screenwriters: Kamala Lopez, Gini Sikes
Producers: Kamala Lopez, Joel Marshall, Gini Sikes
Executive producers: Liz Lopez, Patricia Arquette
Director of photography: Jendra Jarnagin
Editor: Geoff Stebbins
Composers: Gharles-Henri Avelange, Kathryn Bostic
Not rated, 93 minutes
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