Maya Angelou headscarf at fence headscarf, credit: Wayne Miller/Magnum

Nine Great Documentaries About Women Activists

March 22, 2017 by Sharon Knolle in Lists

As Women’s History Month continues, we’re shining the spotlight on women activists who faced down injustice, pioneered paths for other women and girls, or have fought heroically trying to save the world.

Although the women on this list focused on different arenas, in the end they’re all inevitably linked. As feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote in 2014, “Racism and sexism are intertwined, and must be fought together, always.” And as oceanographer Sylvia Earle said, everything is connected: “If the oceans die, we die.”

He Named Me Malala (2014) (On Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay, Vudu and iTunes)

The shooting of 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai in 2012 shocked the world. As the Taliban’s repression grew, the family of the outspoken advocate for educating girls never dreamed the terror group would go so far as to shoot a child. Malala not only survived being shot in the head, she became a globally recognized activist who became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in history. This documentary examines not just her extraordinary courage, but the unusually supportive upbringing she had from her father.

When director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) asks Malala if her father naming her after a famous female warrior shaped her life, she smiles and says no. “My father only gave me the name Malala, he didn’t make me Malala. I chose this life. It was not forced on me. I chose this life and now I must continue it.”

“There’s a moment where you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up,” says the wiser-than-her-years teenager, who now lives in England. “One book, one child, one pen can change the world.”

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013) (On Amazon; PBS Home Video DVD)

Angela Davis says of the Chinese American activist, “Grace has made more contributions to the African American struggle than most black people have.”

Grace got a PhD in philosophy in 1940 from Bryn Mawr and found that no one would hire “Orientals,” but found a job at the philosophy library in Chicago. The only housing she could afford was in a rat-infested building — when she met fellow neighbors protesting the deplorable conditions: “That brought me in contact with the black community for the first time.”

She relocated to Detroit and, with her African American husband Jimmy Boggs, became two of the most influential leaders of the Black Power movement: Both had a thick FBI file. After the Detroit riots of 1967, she decided that “rebellion” and “revolution” were not the same thing: Rebellion was an “outburst of violence,” and revolution was an “evolution toward something much grander.” Her radical idea: “You have to change yourself in order to change the world. We are responsible for the evolution of the human species. You begin with the protests, but you have to move on from there… just being angry does not constitute

“You have to change yourself in order to change the world. We are responsible for the evolution of the human species. You begin with the protests, but you have to move on from there… just being angry does not constitute revolution.”

Boggs passed away in 2015, but not before inspiring generations of activists and community builders.

The film aired on POV on PBS and was directed by Grace Lee, who first met Boggs while filming the Sundance Channel doc The Grace Lee Project.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) (On Netflix)

In 1964, the legendary blues singer wrote the politically charged song “Mississippi Goddam” — a song few radio stations dared to play — after the killing of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing.

Her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who exec-produced the Oscar-nominated film, shares, “My mother said that after she sang that song, she got so angry that her voice broke and from then on, it never returned to its former octave. But I think Mom’s anger is what sustained her. The creativity and the passion of those days is really what kept her going.”

Simone became a fixture at Civil Rights events, including the Selma March in March 1965. “It was extremely dangerous. The federal marshals were called in,” recalls Kelly.

Despite criticism from her at-times abusive manager/husband and the public, Simone said, “I don’t think you can be an artist and not reflect the times.” Being so politically active was just one reason her career suffered, but Simone felt she had no choice:

“I think that the artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages are probably happier, but you see, I have to live with me, and that is difficult.”

The film was nominated for an Oscar and directed by Liz Garbus, who also made Bobby Fischer Against the World and the Academy Award-nominated short doc Killing in the Name.

The Battle of amfAR (on HBO Go)

Everyone knows actress Elizabeth Taylor, the more famous co-founder of amFar (The American Foundation for AIDS Research), but much lesser known is the woman she co-founded the organization with, in 1983: research scientist Mathilde Krim.

In this film by multi-award-winning filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, Swiss-born Krim recalls receiving the “shock of her life” as a teenager when she saw newsreels of Allies freeing emaciated concentration camp victims. She vowed, “I’m going to replace all the stupidities with facts, with real knowledge, so after the war, I became a research scientist.”

She began hearing about a “gay cancer” in the early ‘80s and decided to make it her focus. But no federal funding was available for what was then considered a gay-only scourge. President Reagan refused to even acknowledge the disease.

Krim approached Elizabeth Taylor, who was outspoken in her support of AIDS-afflicted friend Rock Hudson, and the two formed the far-reaching amfAR. The organization has funded $450 million in research leading to breakthroughs that meant HIV/AIDS was no longer an automatic death sentence.

Says Krim: “Most people think, ‘I’m only a little guy, I can’t have an effect on public policy.’ It’s not so. Everybody can do something.”

Gloria: In Her Own Words (2011) (on HBO Go)

Gloria Steinem, feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine, says the instinct to rebel “starts out as a little child who says, ‘It’s not fair.’ And ‘You are not the boss of me.’ And it ends up being a worldview that questions hierarchy altogether.”

As a young newspaper staffer, she was often working without a byline or forced to undertake fluffy freelance assignments. Her male editor would give her a choice: Mail his letters on the way out or go with him to a hotel. “There was no word for sexual harassment,” she says. “It was just called life. So you had to find your own, individual way around it.”

Her famous undercover assignment working as a Playboy Bunny was like “being hung on a meat hook,” she says in the documentary. It put her at the forefront of the women’s movement, but it also saddled her with the lifelong accusations that she was merely exploiting her looks for attention.

She started her speaking career when she couldn’t find outlets that would publish her writing about the women’s movement. “At the beginning, it was treated with humor, but as it began to penetrate the mainstream of society, it became a threat.”

She founded Ms. Magazine for the same reason: No one else was publishing articles by women for women about their own movement. Newsman Harry Reasoner predicted the magazine wouldn’t last five issues, saying that after the first issue they would have used up everything there was to say about being a woman. He later apologized when proven wrong.

The neutral-marital-status coinage of “Ms.” entered not only pop culture, but official government forms.

The clips in this Emmy-nominated film of men freaking out on talk shows because women want to “take over,” when Steinem is merely asking for “50/50,” are still all-too timely.

Maya Angelou and Still I Rise (2016) (on PBS.org)

The first documentary about beloved poet-author-actress-singer and activist Maya Angelou traces her path from her hardscrabble childhood in the Depression-era South to reading at the 1993 Inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

Her landmark autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has inspired countless artists, including Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, and director John Singleton. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony award and won numerous Grammys.

In the film (co-directed by Bob Hercules & Rita Coburn Whack), her son says, “My mother taught me her love of justice. She said, ‘If you really have something to protest, you should be on the streets.'” He recounts when she refused to yield to a mounted policeman during a protest for black rights. “In those days, they would trample you and leave your body in the street.” He recalls urging her to get on the sidewalk, but she wouldn’t budge, saying, “One person standing on the word of God is the majority.” It was the police who moved that day, not the protestors.

Angelou, who passed away in 2014, said,

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter defeats, so we can know who the hell we are.”

Mission Blue (2014) (on Netflix)

Director James Cameron called Sylvia Earle “The Joan of Arc of the oceans” and The New Yorker and The New York Times both have referred to this passionate conservationist as “Her Deepness.”

“If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things that others do not,” says the oceanographer and biologist in this documentary, which was co-directed by Fisher Stevens (an actor who also co-produced The Cove). Earle grew up deep-sea diving off the Gulf of Mexico and has been devastated over the drastic decline in ocean life.

“I think if others had the opportunity to see what I have seen in my lifetime… I may not seem like a radical at all.”

Inspired by her hero Jacques Cousteau, she and her father were two of the first to try his new invention, the Aqua-Lung, which let divers spend significantly more time underwater. “When I first began exploring the ocean 20 years ago, no one imagined that you could do anything to harm it, but now we’re facing paradise lost,” she says.

Although now 81, Earle still travels the globe speaking on behalf of the oceans. “If they die, we die,” she says simply. She urgently reminds law- and policy-makers: “We have a chance to fix things.”

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012) (On Amazon)

It’s hard to appreciate just how threatening a radical black woman was to the Establishment in 1970, especially one who was also a member of the Communist Party and a close associate of the Blank Panthers.

Angela Davis became an assistant philosophy professor at UCLA in 1969, but her Communism and activism led then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan to try to bar from teaching at any California university.

The documentary by African American filmmaker Shola Lynch (Chisholm ’72) focuses mainly on Davis’s highly publicized 1970 trial in the shooting death of a judge: It takes its name from a popular slogan that was part of the worldwide wave of support she received while in prison awaiting trial.

Davis was prosecuted on three capital counts for conspiracy, aggravated kidnapping, and first-degree murder. She was found not guilty on all counts by an all-white jury and walked out of the court as she had walked into it, with a Black Power salute — as potent a symbol of rebellion as revolutionary Ché Guevara.

Equal Means Equal (2016) (On Amazon)

Actress and activist Kamala Lopez’s documentary, which was short-listed for an Oscar, looks at the myriad ways women are still unequal to men in America. She talks to icons of the women’s movement, including Steinem and actress Patricia Arquette, as well as women who have faced discrimination or outright abuse at the hands of the legal and justice system, their significant others, and even their employers.

Lopez zeroes in on one thing that could help women’s fight for equal pay and rights: ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA seemed on the verge of passing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but three states held out. In an age where women’s rights are once being attacked, adding a line in the constitution that women must be treated the same as men would seem the surest  — and possibly only — way to ensure fair treatment.

One scary statistic Lopez shares: “The U.S. has more homeless women and children than any other industrialized nation.”

“I don’t know what it’s going to take,” says Arquette, who faced backlash after citing women’s rights in her Oscar speech. “These are our girls. This is our country.”

Sharon Knolle

Sharon Knolle is a Los Angeles-based journalist who writes for Moviefone, IMDb and a plethora of other sites. She is the founder of Moviepaws.com.