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(The 2016 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 11 and runs all the way until the 19th. We have boots on the ground and reviews coming in by the truckload so stay tuned to HtN throughout the fest!)

In a landmark decision in 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Roe v. Wade, against a state law banning abortions except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger, effectively legalizing abortion across the country. Since then, the issue has hardly gone away, as the forces that believe that life begins at conception and should be protected at all cost consider abortion as murder, while the opposing side believes that a woman should have the right to choose what to do with her body and when—if at all—to terminate her pregnancy. As a history of subsequent Supreme Court rulings reveals, in recent years an increasing number of restrictions on access to abortion have been allowed in various parts of the nation. Now, in 2016, the high court is about to decide on a new case, and with the recent death of Justice Scalia, no one knows what will happen. The future legal status of abortion in our society is as uncertain as it has ever been.

Filmmaker Dawn Porter (Spies of Mississippi) enters the fray with a thoughtful new documentary that examines the negative results of the slow nip/tuck at abortion access, in Southern states, in particular. Since many of the same clinics that offer abortion also offer other important medical services to women—mostly low-income women—the actions of state legislatures to regulate these clinics out of business in places like Alabama and Texas threaten these women’s health in ways not intended (we hope not intended, anyway). Porter by no means offers an objective point of view; she is angry, as are her subjects (and for the record, I share their anger). But what Porter does well is to allow her interviewees to explain, in their own words, why what they do is so important, and why they believe that unintended pregnancies cause more harm than good. These are brave folks, who risk life, limb, and solvency to keep the clinics afloat. They may be “trapped” in an increasingly impossible situation, but they will not go quietly. By allowing them to speak so passionately (and eloquently), Porter creates a film that is not just for true believers; her larger points about the health risks incurred when the clinics close may even convince a few folks form the other side to change their minds.

One thing I wish that Porter had done differently, however (or, additionally) would have been to draw a larger polemical point about how the states that ban access to abortion are the same states with an alarming number of unintended pregnancies among teenagers. And why? Because the same mentality that seeks to prevent women from having control over their own bodies also seeks to ban all knowledge of sex and its consequences (these states have abstinence-only sex education programs). It’s an absurd situation—a knowledge of, and access to, birth control would certainly help prevent unwanted pregnancies—and its inclusion would make Porter’s arguments stronger. I also think that some comparative analysis between the South (where most of this misery seems to occur) and the North (which surely must have some problems, too) would have been helpful. These are minor failings in an otherwise strong and important documentary, made even timelier by recent and upcoming events.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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