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Ask for Jane: The Historical Drama That is Needed Now

Movie Poster for Ask for Jane (C) 2019 Level Film

by Vickram Singh

Fearless and determined, an underground collective tirelessly operates behind closed doors. Their lives are comprised of code names, secret phone calls, clandestine meetings, wiretaps, evading authorities, and trusting no one but each other. Their conviction only grows stronger in the face of near-insurmountable odds. This may sound like a movie on WWII resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, but the reality is much closer to home. It’s the story of the Jane Collective: a group of women resisting society’s attempts to control their bodies in Chicago during the late 60s through the early 70s.

The 2018 historical drama, Ask for Jane, the debut feature of director/writer Rachel Carey, frames the narrative and establishes a pace that raises the main characters, as unlikely as they first seem, to resistance fighters fighting cruelty and injustice. The real-life story of the Jane Collective deserves nothing short of this depiction because of the risks they took in order to provide aid to women in need and how they are woefully under-appreciated today (an unfortunate trend with women’s history is how it is neglected— essentially erased). The collective began when a group of women started an underground call-service for women looking to get an abortion. They would redirect their callers to male doctors who could do the procedure and eventually learned to do abortion procedures for women with early-stage pregnancies. Several women donned the moniker, “Jane,” as they consoled women from all walks of life, seeking options when all else seemed lost. In the days before Roe v. Wade, these women risked prison time and being condemned by society as murders.

Rebels behind bars (c) level Films

The film is the vision of lead actress, creator, and producer, Cait Cortelyou. A Barnard alum, life-long feminist, and third generation woman who has worked with Planned Parenthood, Cortelyou was shocked she never knew of the history of the Jane Collective until hearing about them in a documentary. The initial realization transformed to inspiration as she went down the pre-production rabbit hole of cold emails, long meetings, a failed attempt at crowdfunding (though great for outreach) and creating a team. She was driven by her insatiable interest in the women who were behind the collective and those who sought their help. For her, the most important thing to convey was, “the disparate reasons for why women would seek an abortion and why they might need one.” 

By the time they had begun filming in 2017, there was a whole new sense of urgency. Multiple states enacted legislature that would ban abortions altogether, no matter the circumstances that brought the women to consider it in the first place. It is a fascinating position for a film to be in; the filmmakers and the audience cannot separate the situation surrounding abortion in present day compared to the years leading up to the landmark Supreme Court decision, the time period the film takes place in. The added context and motivation make Ask for Jane a movie that carries a message its present day American audiences can’t help connecting to the current zeitgeist. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem said it best: “It should be a movie seen by every American.”

The film is compelling and thought-provoking as a historical drama. All the moving pieces in the film’s mise-en-scene sold the look and feel of the time period with no anachronisms. This attention to detail adds to the underlying tension of a time period that uses antiquated ideas and misinformation to sequester the little agency women had at the time. The performances of the side character added to this impressive tone. Throughout the movie, it always feels like that world is made up of people who are either hateful, have no idea what they are doing, or have given up their morals for the sake of the status quo. This oppressive backdrop illuminates the danger and excites the audience with the rebellious actions of the protagonists. There is a feeling that danger is around the corner, that at any moment the door behind our heroines is going to come crashing down. It sells the suspense and danger so well it gave me an epiphany a half-way through the movie: while this is a movie about a time and place long ago, it looks eerily similar to how things are now. 

Cortelyou’s vision, the phenomenal writing, and incredible performances establishes a tone that resonates emotionally with the viewer. The acting is amazing, with Cortelyou and Cody Horn’s performances being especially powerful. The chemistry between the two actors and their characters’ dynamic lends itself to levity in lighter moments and their unfaltering conviction in the dangerous situations they land in. 

Cody Horn, Cait Cortelyou, and Michael Rabe in Ask for Jane (c) Level Film

The rest of the characters in the collective are just as compelling. The film does an incredible job of creating complex characters with legitimate motivations. Ask for Jane takes great care in showing a diverse group of women with different backgrounds and different reasons for being there. It does not feel contrived when there are disagreements within the group. The positions the characters choose to take always feel warranted, which lends itself to the vision Cortelyou had. The depiction of the Jane collective could have easily been a girl power, rebel romp that would have been overshadowed by other media built around popular feminism. It was refreshing to see each woman in the group as a unique person with different values and motivations. This makes their commitment to each other and the collective all the stronger throughout the film. 

The male characters in the films are equally strong, though working in a different capacity to the rest of the cast. While the men in the film are not villains, it is clear from the onset that there is a disconnect between them and the women. Even the ones who are sweet and caring are more concerned about their own vision and consider the women’s goals as auxiliary. The stubborn denial of support in any capacity from most of the men makes any moment a man comes on screen something that makes you hold your breath. As a man, this is the closest I have gotten to feeling the anxiety and apprehension most women must feel around strange men and friends who are beyond understanding what it’s like. After this realization, I couldn’t help but think: “Where there any true allies, then?” 

I asked this same question weeks later, when a close childhood friend came to me for support when she realized she had become pregnant. In that moment, what I remembered and felt while watching the film flooded back to me. I honestly do not know how I would have reacted to news like this before watching this movie. All I can attest to is that the movie was on my mind when I told her, with all the reassurance and compassion I could muster, “I will support you throughout this, I want to be your ally.”

The initial collective (C) Level Film

A good film supplements the audience’s reality, imprinting an experience they can never truly experience in their own lives. Ask for Jane is a film that does that on an incredibly large scale as it tackles the harsh realities many Americans have on their minds. Personally, I could not divorce the film I was watching from how abortion and reproductive rights are seen and talked about today. Society at large is still trying to control women’s bodies using the same methods they did back then, something that only clicked to me while I was watching this film. Things are so dire and dreadful in the film, that the introduction of Roe v. Wade at the end felt like a deus ex machina, something that seemed inconceivable with how the topic of abortion was treated and the overt misogyny that was the status quo then. I don’t know if a film like this will convince people to change their opinions on abortions, but I know they will not be able ignore the emotions behind actions women had to take in order to simply live their own lives. I cannot commend the film enough for imprinting an experience I can never truly understand; any time a film takes me from my reality and gives me a glimmer of a different life is a film that I admire greatly.

Based in New Jersey, Vickram Singh is a staff editor for Honeysuckle Magazine. He is also the managing editor and staff writer for The Medium, the satirical newspaper at Rutgers University, where he currently studies.

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