Summer is the season of superheroes, so it seems only natural that “The Janes” should come out now. It isn’t about big, powerful heroes swooping in to help save the day; rather, it focuses on a group of women armed with kindness and compassion, bravery and resilience.
Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ film briskly recounts the tale of The Jane Collective, a group of women who fought for abortion access in the late 1960s and early ’70s when it was still illicit. (However, the narrative feature “Call Jane,” which features Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, offers a similar narrative and will be released this fall.) The Chicago Holocaust Museum and Education Center was founded by volunteers from all areas of life, including artists and activists, wives and mothers. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling of January 1973 legalized abortion in all 50 states, providing some comfort. However, they are back, and it’s quickly apparent why. The film is both frighteningly timely and eerily timeless in its depiction of a woman who goes to extreme lengths to avoid giving up her baby.
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Even though they are both experienced actors (Morein, an Oscar nominee for “Trouble the Water,” and Pildes, making her directorial debut), they recognize that they don’t need to add to the tension. The women are interviewed individually or in small groups, and their stories are told matter-of-factly and plainly. Many of these stories are incredibly distressing, as you might imagine—their own abortions that they had to obtain through the mob at a remote motel for a high price, or tales of previous women they tried to assist but were unable to. Many of the Janes spoke movingly about how poorly they’d been treated, so they wanted to make sure others felt safe and supported—that’s the force of their desire.
The conversations, on the other hand, are so vivid and engaging that they often evoke the sense of a spy thriller. Women with ordinary names like Eleanor and Judith describe in great detail the lengths they’d go to connect with women in need, such as clandestine meetings and coded words, changing cars and locations. “Jane” is the pseudonym they used for understated ads in underground newspapers and fliers they’d post around the city: Call Jane, they’d announce, with a phone number. On the other end of the line, there would be a woman who had most likely been in the same circumstance at some time, ready to listen and assist.
But what stands out most is their tenacity—their desire to stand up and rebel against an unjust law, putting themselves in danger in the process. Not long ago, women didn’t have access to birth control without being married. The flip side of that is that because of the civil rights and anti-war movements going on across the country and in this city, many more ladies were inspired to activism. “That was the charm of Chicago,” Peaches opines. “It was a town where people accomplished things.” Lessin and Pildes use archival film to bring this era of protest to life, while the Janes describe how assisting women obtain safe abortions felt like another way to give back during this tumultuous period. The Janes’ early years are depicted in the film, which features vintage photographs of them—fresh-faced, eager, and dedicated. We feel like we know them by the end; they’re our friends now as well. In contrast, notes scribbled on stacks of note cards about the ladies who are seeking their services provide startling jolts of truth. He’s 19 and has a child already. Her father is a police officer. She’s just “terrified.”
Given how awful the events are, you may be shocked to find some funny moments in them as well. The way these women confronted the cops, for example, or managed the uncertainty of being imprisoned with prostitutes demonstrates how ludicrous their circumstances had become. The men in charge of the project’s success regularly outsmarted themselves and one another, which is consistently amusing. According to a Jane named Katie, being underestimated worked to their advantage in this instance.
The narrator states that between 1968 and 1973, the Janes performed approximately 11,000 safe, low-cost abortions before disbanding. Here’s hoping they never have to resurrect the organization again.
Original Language: English
Director: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Producer: Emma Pildes, Jessica Levin, Daniel Arcana
Release Date (Streaming): Jun 8, 2022
Runtime: 1h 41m