By Stephanie Ornelas
Women continue to break barriers every day, and it’s happening all around us. In January, the world saw Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) become the first actor from a Marvel Studios film to be nominated for an Oscar, and just last week, Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) became the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. The 2023 Sundance Film Festival also included the highest percentage of women directors in the Institute’s history. And we all know the contributions women have made to history go far beyond the film industry. Join us as we revisit some of these stories.
Movies are a great way for us to explore the lives of historical figures and get a better understanding of what motivated them to ignite change. There are many films that celebrate women’s contributions, and though it’s impossible to contain every film in just one list, the titles below will give you some great insight into the ways women have made history. Celebrate Women’s History Month and explore these nine Sundance-Supported films centered on women who greatly impacted society:
Home of the Brave (2004 Sundance Film Festival)
During the height of the civil rights crusade in 1965, activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered near Selma, Alabama, by the Ku Klux Klan, and her murder trial resulted in the acquittal of the three arrested Klan members. A white woman campaigning for Black voting rights, she participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches as she helped with coordination and logistics.
Using archival footage and interviews, Paola di Florio’s Home of the Brave relates Liuzzo’s contribution to the advancement of civil rights and examines and investigates her death and the profound effect it had on those who supported her. Available to rent on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video.
Iron Jawed Angels (2004 Sundance Film Festival)
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were prepared to go to prison for what they believed in — that women deserve the right to vote. And they were willing to stand up to anyone. Director Katja von Garnier’s drama tells the story of two radical young women who were influential in the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. The film recounts such momentous events as when Paul and Burns organize a landmark parade on President Wilson’s inauguration day — and are vehemently interrupted by onlooking men.
“Firing up an effusive contemporary pop score, a sweeping, restless camera, and a vibrant palette to match the suffragettes’ radiant dynamism, von Garnier goes into high gear to tell a classic American tale of struggle for justice,” writes Caroline Libresco in the Festival Program Guide. Available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2011 Sundance Documentary Film Grant)
In 2011, director Shola Lynch was given a grant from Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. Lynch wanted to tell the dramatic and powerful story of an international political icon: Angela Davis. The documentary chronicles the college professor’s life and how her social activism implicated her in a botched kidnapping attempt that ended with a deadly shootout and her name on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Available to stream on Tubi, Amazon Prime Video, and Brown Sugar.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016 Sundance Film Festival)
Co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack team up to tell the story of one iconic poet who inspired generations with her work. But Maya Angelou was more than a writer. She was a singer, a dancer, an activist, and an icon.
By weaving her words with intimate archival photographs and videos, the documentary is a celebration of Angelou and her work as it depicts scenes from her exuberant life during some of the country’s most defining moments. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video; to rent on Google Play Movies & TV and Apple TV+.
RBG (2018 Sundance Film Festival)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an unexpected pop culture icon with her quiet rise to the nation’s highest court and her inspiring legal legacy after arguing pivotal gender discrimination cases. Using interviews and unprecedented access to Ginsburg’s life outside the court, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s powerful documentary explores Ginsburg’s exceptional life and career. Available to stream on YouTube, Plato TV, The Roku Channel, and Redbox.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019 Sundance Film Festival)
Toni Morrison’s work has been transformative in the writing and rewriting of Black identity in the United States and the experiences of Black women. The first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, she acted as a mentor to generations of young writers of color throughout her long career.
Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders uses archival footage and interviews with Morrison and famed figures like Oprah Winfrey and Angela Davis to look back at what inspired her work, which includes novels, children’s books, plays, a song cycle, and a libretto. Available to stream on Netflix; to rent on Apple TV+ and YouTube.
Aggie (2020 Sundance Film Festival)
Agnes Gund is not just a collector of modern and contemporary art — she’s a social justice advocate and a supporter of marginalized artists. In 2017, she sold Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Masterpiece for $165 million and used funds from the famous pop art painting’s sale to start the Art for Justice Fund.
Through intimate conversations between Aggie, her family, and her peers and fellow artists, director Catherine Gund’s documentary examines the life and career of one bold philanthropist who worked to support underrecognized artists and bring arts education back to public schools. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
The Janes (2022 Sundance Film Festival)
They were a group of women willing to risk it all — and that’s exactly what they did. The Janes centers on the Jane Collective, an underground service in Chicago that helped women safely access abortion. The women behind the group, which included activists Heather Booth, Judith Arcana, and Marie Leaner — all subjects of the film — were known under a code name. If people found themselves in trouble with an unwanted pregnancy, a friend or acquaintance in the know might advise them to “call Jane.”
Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ film recalls a lifesaving underground network that worked to provide low-cost and free illegal abortions to an estimated 11,000 women. Their timely documentary illustrates how the fight for safe and legal abortions was, and continues to be, an uphill battle for many women and activists in the U.S. Available to stream on HBO Max, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video.
The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022 Sundance Film Festival)
Anne Alvergue’s documentary short shines a light on the Cabinet wife who spoke out during the Watergate scandal — and the Nixon administration’s campaign to gaslight her into silence. The film offers a unique female gaze on Watergate through the voice of Mitchell herself. Available to stream on Netflix.