From the L.A. Film Fest: JACKSON

Jackson is not only one of the best documentaries to premier at this year’s L.A. Film Festival, it’s sure to be one of the best of the year, period. From first-time writer/director Maisie Crow, it’s an assured film that is simultaneously fierce and kind in its depiction of two sides of a desperate crisis and in the questions that it asks and (implicitly) answers. 

Jackson focuses on the work of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (the last abortion clinic in Mississippi) and its efforts to stay open in the face of conservative political and religious leaders’ attempts to shut it down. The film follows three women, Shannon Brewer (the director of the clinic), Barbara Beavers, an anti-abortion advocate and the director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices, and April Jackson, a poor, single, 24-year-old mother of four with one on the way. The clinic, like so many others across the country, suffers from the passage of TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws that single out the medical practices of doctors who provide abortions and impose on them requirements that are different and more burdensome than those imposed on other medical practices. Jackson clearly shows how these laws also disproportionately affect poor women of color like April.

Shannon Brewer (seated) directs the Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

One of Jackson‘s greatest strengths is the way in which Crow consistently humanizes her three leads. Crow reflected on staying true to her subjects, “It was never a challenge for me. My editor Jamie Boyle and I looked at it as staying true to the individual story we were telling.” Given the ways in which conservatives like Beavers refuse to address the real issues of economic inequality and poor access to education, this is something of a minor miracle. On the other hand, Brewer is a truly inspirational woman, and the reveal that Crow offers about her past towards the end of the film casts her in an even more sympathetic light.

For Crow (and no doubt many others), the real frustration is not that people are anti-abortionists, but that they want to impose this worldview on everyone else and place expectations on people from drastically different socio-economic positions. Crow talked about engaging folks on the other side of the aisle, “It was no secret that I’m pro-choice. I’m honest. I’m pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean that I think your viewpoint is wrong. I just want to understand it. I totally get that people are pro-life and would never go get an abortion, but the thing that is hard for me to wrap my head around is that when they’re really standing in the way of other women that might want to access that care.”

Jackson also excels in showing how conservative (both politically and religiously) leaders create cycles of poverty and oppression for communities of poor women of color, even as they serve and minister to them on an individual basis. In my interview with Crow, I asked her if she noticed this tension, where women like Beavers devote their lives to addressing individual crises while, most likely, voting in ways that birth those crises. Crow responded, “I don’t know if we’re voting to perpetuate it or if politicians are pandering to what they perceive their voting base wants.” Either way, that’s terrifying.

In the film, Beavers frames unwanted pregnancy as a lack of self control. Beavers argues that abstinence–the epitome of self-control to be sure–is God’s more effective way. This is all well and good until she starts making up her own information about other forms of reproductive healthcare. She claims that condoms are only 80% effective in preventing pregnancy, when, in reality, that number is 98%. This is one of the few moments where Crow inserts herself into the film to point out an inaccuracy. Crow expresses frustrations that many viewers are likely to share:

Why are there 38 crisis pregnancy centers that aren’t actually giving women the choices that they advertise, and what does that mean for women in state like that? If pro-lifers want to have a crisis pregnancy center and offer unbiased information on all of those things, great. That’s awesome. And if you want to give away clothing to women who decide to carry children to term, more power to you. But when it comes to stigmatizing and shaming women for choices they need to make for themselves, that’s where I have a problem.

Jackson‘s framework is certainly the ongoing pro-choice/pro-life debate, but the heartbeat of the film is April and her impossible situation. Crow talked about meeting April:

I ran into her at the Crisis Pregnancy Center. April walked in, and I was immediately captivated by her because she’s an incredibly smart woman who’s had no access to education. She didn’t get to finish high school, and she’s caught up in this cycle, but she’s very articulate in a very unpracticed way about where she is in life. She’s not clueless to her situation, and for someone to be in that situation and to be willing to share their life and be open with it was incredible to me.

Watching April’s story unfold is heart-breaking and frustrating. Could she have made better choices? Of course, but Crow gently forces us to consider what options were available to April and, in doing so, weaves a damning thread from April’s experience of poverty and lack of opportunity to the halls of the Mississippi legislature. And as the film shows, April (and others like her) are keenly aware of that connection too.

The distribution status of Jackson is still uncertain, even though Crow is in conversations about that. Keep an eye out for this timely, important film and be sure to support it when it releases (hopefully) later this year.