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Reflections on Jackson (the film)

March 11, 2017

Earlier this week, several friends and I went to see Jackson, which was screened, for free, as part of the Women Take the Reel film festival in Boston. The film festival screens films by female directors at universities around Boston during the month of March. Here's the trailer:

Jackson | Official Trailer US (2016) Documentary HD from Maisie Crow on Vimeo.

I was very impressed by Jackson, a moving documentary that tells the story of the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi and the barage of regulation intended to force the clinic to close. The film follows three main "characters" in different settings, whose stories eventually overlap and intertwine. The first character is Shannon Brewer, the director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. The second is Barbara Beaver, who runs the Center for Pregnancy Choices and is a leader of the anti-abortion movement in Mississippi. The third is April Jackson, a 24-year-old mother of four children faced with another unplanned pregnancy.

The film gives us a view of the day-to-day harassment faced by the abortion clinic: protesters who stand outside all day, trying to harass, manipulate, and shame the patients and staff of the clinic. The clinic also faces a legislative threat from politicians who are open about their desire to make Mississippi "abortion free". The state government enacts a law that requires medical staff at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital, ostensibly to improve the safety of patients. However, when the clinic staff apply for admitting privileges, they are rejected from more than 10 hospitals who barely consider their credentials. This law, called a TRAP ("Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers") law, is eventually struck down, though the staff feel certain that they will continue to face legal hurdles. This type of law, combined with the brazen harassment of the clinic's staff and patients, severly restricts abortion access for women in Mississippi. As the clinic staff say in the film, these restrictions disproportionately affect poor, black women who may not have the time, money, education, or access to pursue other options (e.g. getting an abortion in another state).

We see a very different approach to pregnancy in the Center for Pregnancy Choices (CPC), a mentoring center that provides some health services (e.g. ultrasounds, pregnancy tests) and seems to be run by women with deeply-held religious beliefs. The are open about their pro-life stance and desire to prevent abortion, and we see their often manipulative tactics play out in the experience of April, who visits the center at the beginning of her fifth, unplanned pregnancy. The staff at the CPC never even mention abortion as an option, even when April states that she does not want another chid. One moment that stands out was when the ultrasound technician puts the words "Hi Mom!" on April's ultrasound photo - I see this as an attempt to make April feel emotionally attached to the unborn fetus. Throughout the film, the CPC staff (and especially the director, Barbara) give April gifts and baby supplies, alongside a large dose of unrealistic and slut-shaming counseling. For example, instead of suggesting she try birth control, they tell her to try abstinence and suggest she should have more self-control.

One of the most striking aspects of the film was the intimate video work and honesty of the subjects. The director, Maisie Crow, attended our screening and answered questions afterwards. She said that she spent several months in Jackson before she started filming, getting close to and building trust with her subjects. Even still, the close shots set in intimate locations (subjects' bedrooms, in the abortion clinic, etc) were amazing and felt seamless. It was easy to forget that the film was a documentary, and that there had been someone behind the camera in every scene.

This intimacy leads to the question of objectivity. The film gives roughly equal screen time to pro-choice and pro-life advocates. The director, Maisie Crow, said that while she is pro-choice, she tried to make the film as objective as possible, and show both sides of the abortion divide. Both pro-choice and pro-life subjects seem to be speaking honestly, and from the heart. Crow said she showed the film to both Shannon Brewer and Barbara Beaver before it was released, and both were happy with the film and felt it portrayed them fairly. However, after the film started gaining recognition from pro-choice and human right's advocates, Barbara Beaver was upset, and distanced herself from the film.

This reaction brings up many questions for me. If Beaver truly felt she was fairly portrayed, why did her relationship with the film change after she learned about public opinions? Did she feel the film was being misinterpreted, or did public response change her attitude about her behavior? (My bet's on the former...) What's interesting to me about this film is that, while I admittedly came into the screening with pro-choice beliefs, I thought it was both objective AND a strong argument for improving access to abortion. That is, I thought Crow approached both sides neutrally and allowed them to tell their stories, and I think the events of the film (as backed up by research) make a strong argument for how important abortion access is for women's health and self-determination. I wonder how pro-life supporters would interpret the events of the film; it seems hard to believe that they could, in good conscience, deny April the opportunity to choose whether or not she carries her fifth child to term.

It's difficult for me to write about abortion objectively because it's such a polarizing issue, and I do have strong beliefs on the subject. I was very impressed by Jackson. To me, it reinforced the need to be vigilant, vocal, and protect every women's constitutional right to abortion. The film was also a reminder of the huge disparities in access and education in our country. As a well-educated, well-off woman who grew up on the coasts, I know about birth control, and I feel confident that I could access and afford an abortion if I needed one.

April's story could not be more different. As one of the abortion clinic nurses says in the film, it's crazy and very damaging to withhold good sex education, birth control, AND abortion. In the film, we see how the CPC dissuades women from having abortions with the promise of mentoring and support, but ultimately does not do nearly enough to ease the responsibilites of childcare in a way that would allow poor, uneducated mothers to lift themselves out of poverty. Additionally, their views on birth control are both judgemental and ineffective. They suggest that women should exert more "self-control" and abstain from sex in order to avoid pregnancy. To me, this tactic is both ineffectual (because unfortunately, some women do not have control over when and why they have sex) and misguided (because I believe women should be able to enjoy sex without the potential burden of motherhood and childcare).

This film provided an important reminder of the aggressive threats to abortion access in the U.S. that are happening right now, and an unsettling view of the detrimental effects on women's health and prospects when those threats succeed. I was glad to have the opportunity to see the film and encourage others to see it as well if possible.