Midway through Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s stirring documentary “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” Jane Fonda briefly appears as the film’s most famous talking head. Remembering the time they were making the hit 1980 comedy “9 to 5” inspired by various stories of workplace sexism collected from the period’s fed-up administrative women, Fonda jokingly retells one particular vivid fantasy a female clerical worker had of killing her male supervisor — apparently, an all-too-common daydream among similarly ill-treated secretaries of the time. It goes something like mincing the boss in a coffee bean grinder and making drip coffee out of him.
As hilariously out-there as this imaginary revenge scenario might sound — so over-the-top that it couldn’t be included in the Hollywood film with the iconic Dolly Parton song — it isn’t hard to empathize with this employee’s long-standing grievance deep down, thanks to all the narrative heavy-lifting co-directors Reichert and Bognar do in the lead-up to that scene. Painting a clear-eyed, informative and engaging portrait of what the era’s sex-based discrimination really looked like in the earlier segment of their film, the duo dissects the layers of injustice that spurred the birth of a nowadays lesser-known women’s rights group in 1970s Boston. Founded by Harvard clerical workers Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum, who noticed the system was stacked against female labor, the collective was called 9to5, bearing a mission to demand basic dignities like fair pay, equal advancement opportunities and professional respect that were routinely denied to working women, even though they were indispensable contributors to male-dominated organizations.
Despite the era’s ongoing Women’s Liberation Movement, challenging inherently sexist labor norms was anything but straightforward, when the status quo was dire and the culture at large didn’t yet have a proper vocabulary to define sexual harassment and related issues. Reichert and Bognar remind the viewer of these everyday challenges early on with a pair of sharply utilized clips from “Mad Men.” In both of them, Elisabeth Moss’ character, aspiring copywriter Peggy Olson, learns what it means to be a woman at a Madison Avenue agency the hard way. “They all pretend like they want a secretary. But most of the time, they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress,” Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) explains to the newly hired Peggy in one of these scenes. In the other, Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell sexually pursues and humiliates Peggy in plain sight.
In their sound follow-up to the Oscar-winning “American Factory,” Reichert and Bognar credibly reveal that this depiction is hardly an exaggeration, weaving together a wealth of striking archival material and interviews with some of the activist women who experienced the era first-hand. And these are familiar stylistic and thematic grounds for the lifelong activist/documentarian Reichert, who told the story of a group of female reformers of the early Depression era in her Oscar-nominated 1976 film “Union Maids,” employing a similar artistic approach with present-time figures that enlighten the audience by looking into the past.
In light of that experience, it’s no surprise that she and Bognar recognize exactly how to connect the inspiring heroes they have access to with the film’s narrative thread here. In addition to 9to5 founders Cassedy and Nussbaum, who started small by writing and distributing awareness newsletters before reaching nationwide with their cause, pioneers such as ex-Chair of the SF Democratic Party Mary Jung and early Atlanta-based adopter Verna Barksdale who’ve been with the movement nearly from the start trickle into the chronology through swift editing by Jaime Meyers, forming an urgently inviting dialogue between the past and present.
Story after story, we hear the same thing from these women and others about how indifferent men were toward women’s rightful demands. Most didn’t even bother supplying a proper job description for secretarial roles. Routine sexual harassment was stunningly dismissed. As evidenced in a piece of enraging archival footage, “Women get everything paid for, why are they complaining about money,” was a commonplace talking point. And as many of the activists echo throughout the documentary, things were disproportionately harder for women of color.
Within their film’s compact 86-minute running time, Reichert and Bognar try to cover a lot of ground, including the efforts of 9to5 — some successful, some not quite — to organize unions and its continuing mission into the modern day when intersectional activism and movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are front and center in the culture. Understandably, the filmmakers’ attempts to examine contemporary issues feel like a summary or perhaps the start of a different documentary, rather than something comprehensive. Still, their film on the whole makes an unmistakable statement about how to start a movement on the shoulders of advancements that came before it and lead to seismic shifts in society as a result. It’s a useful insight to consider in the conclusion of “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” reminding how far things have come for women, and how long the road ahead still is.