This spring, FX’s “Mrs. America” has depicted the fiery intellectual battles among the modern feminist movement, with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug ricocheting against one another and against a conservative backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly. These women are relentlessly articulate, strategic, with crystalline points of view about what they want to achieve for themselves and for all women. They comprise a group in which “Jane Roe” — at the center of perhaps the most crucial of victories for the 20th-century feminist movement — would have no place.
Norma McCorvey, the subject of the new documentary “AKA Jane Roe,” is a canny observer of her own experiences — which mainly consist of having been moved around the gameboard of American politics as a pawn. Speaking to director Nick Sweeney’s camera from her nursing home in the months before her 2017 death, McCorvey describes the experience of being drawn in as a pseudonymous plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that established as Constitution the right to an abortion. She was chosen by attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington as an ideal plaintiff to make the case, though in at least one way she was oddly imperfect as a representative for the cause. She never, in fact, had an abortion at all — she simply wanted to look into having the procedure.
McCorvey’s perspective on abortion is frank, realistic, and earthy: Speaking late in her life, she says it should be legal, as “women make mistakes and they make mistakes with men. It’s just mother Nature.” This was, in the film’s telling, not quite high-flying enough a perspective to earn McCorvey a seat at the table among the movement of her time. The film depicts, with some contempt, a march to keep Roe v. Wade from being overturned at which various Hollywood celebrities speak and McCorvey does not; elsewhere, Holly Hunter wins an Emmy for playing McCorvey and thanks the real woman for her fight in vague, airy terms.
The movie can, in moments like, these lean a bit too hard on a sort of ambient contempt for all whose path McCorvey crossed, not least because the woman herself seems to approach life with an attitude of forgiveness. Even in the last great turn of her life, when she allowed herself to be manipulated and used as the face of the anti-abortion movement — a cause for which she says in her so-called “deathbed confession” to have felt no fellow feeling but one which paid her a significant amount of money — she bears no evident ill will. That the Operation Rescue leader who viewed her as a trophy now repents his unethical and irreligious behavior in creating a false prophet is telling, and fascinating. (Does he really mean it?) That McCorvey, seemingly incapable of hiding what she’s thinking, managed to pull off this act and is now willing to reverse herself, for what good that might do after she’s gone, is heartbreaking.
The sadness of McCorvey’s life, captured well by Sweeney, is that she was at the center of a fight for women’s freedom, and yet was herself so unfree, buffeted by waves that she endured with unimaginable forbearance. In McCorvey, this slight film introduces a character well worth knowing even aside from the history she made, but simply for her grace.