Belly of the Beast. Directed by Erika Cohn. New York: Women Make Movies, 2020. 81 minutes.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. Directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi. Brooklyn: Film Rise, 2016. 91 minutes.

Reviewed by Deseriee A. Kennedy

The struggle for human rights has been fought on and through the bodies of women of color and their right to bodily integrity, reproductive rights, and freedom of sexual expression. Although the power to decide whether to bear a child presumably is entrenched in US doctrine recognizing women's right to birth control, the fight for freedom from coerced sterilization and access to abortion is ongoing. And while the US Supreme Court has found laws criminalizing private sexual behavior repugnant to constitutional guarantees of privacy and autonomy, free access to these “liberties” has been constrained by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

Two films by women filmmakers highlight the tenuousness of civil rights if you are a woman of color. Belly of the Beast and Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four provide a basis for rich classroom discussions about the intersection of privacy rights, bodily autonomy, race, and class. The documentaries are ideal for gender, history, sociology, race, sexuality, and criminal and social justice courses. The films examine how justice is dispensed differently depending on gender and racial hierarchies that often place women of color at the bottom and gay, lesbian, and transgender women a rung below that, denying them self-determination and full citizenship.

Belly of the Beast explores the iniquity of the coercive sterilization of women in prison. The film deftly takes the viewers through much of the racial and gendered history of this violation, connecting that history to the ongoing penological system's practices. The impact of this human rights abuse is made palpable by following Kelli Dillon, a woman sentenced to fifteen years in California state prison for killing her abuser and who was one of more than one thousand women sterilized involuntarily while in the state's custody. In the film, legal scholar Dorothy Roberts explains the link between these sterilizations today and eugenics practices born in the United States and later adopted by the Nazis. Belly of the Beast bares the racism and classism underlying the state’s willingness to trade women’s rights for the supposed economic efficiency of preventing the “underclass” from procreating. At the same time, it demonstrates the power of collective action, advocacy, and social justice lawyering by spotlighting Justice Now, Dillon, and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, who worked tirelessly on behalf of Dillon and to gain legislative protections for incarcerated women.

Faculty could pair Belly of the Beast with the seminal book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Roberts 2016 [1997]), Medical Bondage, Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Cooper Owens 2017), the edited volume Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique (Ross et al. 2017), or the documentary A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics, and the American Dream (Welch 2017).

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four follows the cases of four women falsely accused, tried, and convicted of gang raping two young girls in their care, primarily because they are openly gay women of color who bucked gender norms and heteronormativity in a southern town. The media coverage and trials revealed deep biases and stereotyped beliefs about sexuality that associated being queer with Satanism, unraveling the sex panic steeped in prejudice against gay women that swept through the town and its criminal justice system. Although eventually exonerated through the efforts of the Innocence Project of Texas, their release did not occur until 2016, more than two decades after their 1994 trial. As a character study, the film demonstrates the role of the (in)justice system in scapegoating the "other," exacerbating harm in the lives of those already marginalized because of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

To further illustrate the intersectionality of oppression, teachers could assign readings from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Moraga and Anzaldúa 2015 [1981]), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Lorde 2007 [1984]), or Sex Panic and the Punitive State (Lancaster 2011). Faculty could also explore the social justice work of Lambda Legal as an example of activism that challenges judicial inequities.

Belly of the Beast and Southwest of Salem focus the audience on the unique harms inflicted by the justice and prison systems on women of color. Both films encourage critical thought about law as a tool of oppression and its potential for social change. The documentaries, sobering and inspiring, would facilitate rich, nuanced discussions about power, privilege, and the ability of an individual to help shift the balance of power closer toward justice.

Works Cited

Cooper Owens, Deirdre. 2017. Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Lorde, Audre. 2007 (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.

Lancaster, Roger N. 2011. Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moraga, CherrĂ­e, and Gloria AnzaldĂșa, eds. 2015 (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 40th anniversary ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

Roberts, Dorothy. 2016 (1997). Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage.

Ross, Loretta J., Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, Lynn Roberts, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure, eds. 2017. Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique. New York: Feminist Press.

Welch, Stephanie, dir. 2017. A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. 106 minutes.

Deseriee Kennedy is a professor of law at Touro Law Center, where she previously served as the Associate Dean of Diversity & Inclusion. She is a co-author of treatises on domestic violence and matrimonial practice. Her recent scholarship includes “Seeking Economic Justice in the Face of Enduring Racism” (Loyola of Chicago Consumer Law Review, 2021), a contribution to the Racism, Regulation, and the Administrative State series published by the University of Pennsylvania Law School (The Regulatory Review [October 2020]), and “Imperfect Families: Preserving Family Unity and Communities in South Africa and the United States” in Exploring Norms and Family Laws across the Globe (Lexington, 2022). She also has a chapter on incarcerated mothers in Intersections of Mothering: Feminist Accounts (Routledge, 2020).