Oscar winners’ latest doc focuses on office revolt


By Richard Ades

Most Americans don’t know that “9 to 5” was a labor movement years before it was the name of a hit movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. In their first documentary since the Oscar-winning American Factory, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar try to remedy that situation.

9to5: The Story of a Movement talks to the movement’s co-founders, Karen Nusbaum and Ellen Cassedy, along with dozens of others who joined forces to fight for the rights of America’s secretaries.

The flick’s fast-paced beginning uses an amusingly dated promotional film to illustrate the conditions the women worked under. Interviews with former office workers further clarify their predicament: Since there were no formal job descriptions, they were expected to make coffee, run personal errands and generally do whatever their bosses ordered them to do—all the while putting up with sexist comments and frequent sexual harassment.

It was in the early ’70s that Nusbaum and Cassedy took the skills they’d learned from antiwar and civil rights protests and began addressing the problems faced by secretaries. Working out of an office at Harvard, they and others published and distributed a newsletter on the topic. This generated so much interest that they soon became involved in nationwide organizing efforts.

These eventually came to the attention of Fonda, who had time to tackle a new issue after the end of the Vietnam War. As the doc shows, she set up focus groups to gauge just how angry secretaries were at their bosses. The results helped to shape the 1980 revenge comedy 9 to 5.

The documentary makes it clear that the “9 to 5” movement found early success by helping office workers across the country publicize and combat the frustrations they faced in their dead-end jobs. However, things were not so easy when its leaders tried to take the next step by forming a union.

Coincidentally, Reichert and Bognar’s film also loses steam when it begins recounting this difficult period. As they often do, the filmmakers concentrate mainly on activists in their home state of Ohio—specifically, Cleveland and Cincinnati—but they do it in a way that forces viewers to fill in multiple blanks.

What is the “west campus” Cleveland organizers are talking about? Was the Cincinnati walkout strictly a local affair or part of a nationwide strike? A few explanatory comments or title cards would make this section more understandable.

During an interview earlier this year for a profile in Columbus Monthly magazine, Reichert told me they were working to finish the film in time to debut at South by Southwest and the Cleveland International Film Festival (both of which ended up being canceled due to Covid-19). It’s possible the rushed schedule left a few loose ends untied—which is a shame.

Though 9to5 can’t match the “you are there” immediacy of American Factory, the first half or even two-thirds of the running time is both entertaining and informative. Let’s hope the rest of the film can be tweaked before it’s released to the general public, as it offers an important history lesson about a brave battle for the rights of women and workers.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

9to5: The Story of a Movement had a virtual debut at the AFI Docs 2020 film festival. It is not currently available for viewing.

Profiles in struggle: ‘Runner’ and ‘My Darling Vivian’

Guor Mading Maker, a refugee who became an Olympic athlete, in Runner

By Richard Ades

Two very different kinds of heroism are on display in documentaries coming out this weekend. One centers on a refugee-turned-Olympic athlete, the other on a celebrity wife and mother-turned-forgotten woman.

First up is Runner, the story of Guor Mading Maker, who was born in Sudan during a decades-long struggle between the Arabic/Muslim northern region and his own African/Christian south.

Director Bill Gallagher uses somber animation to depict Guor’s early years, when his parents reluctantly sent him away for his own safety. But “safety” is a relative term in the midst of a civil war, as he was captured by the enemy and, after escaping, spent four years of his boyhood totally on his own.

Guor’s fortunes finally changed due to a chance encounter with an aunt and uncle, who took him to the U.S. and settled in New Hampshire. There—as the documentary relates via interviews with former high school classmates and coaches—he discovered that running was not merely a survival tool but a sport and even the possible key to a college education and a promising future.

The bulk of the documentary deals with Guor’s Olympic aspirations, which were spread out over several years and were inextricably linked to the political situation in his homeland. He first opted to compete under an international banner, having no desire to run on behalf of the country that destroyed much of his family and nearly killed him. However, when a peace deal opened the possibility that southern Sudan would gain its independence, he had hopes of joining the new country’s first Olympic team.

Most sports fiction eventually leads to a rousing scene of hard-won triumph. Confined by reality, Gallagher’s film can’t do that, but it does deliver stark glimpses of the pain and frustration of competition, mixed with moving depictions of cultural pride and long-delayed reunions. Most of all, it introduces us to a man who has maintained his determination and integrity despite obstacles most of us can’t even imagine.

My Darling Vivian
Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash during the early, happy years of their marriage

This weekend’s other new documentary, My Darling Vivian, pays homage to the Catholic schoolgirl who became Johnny Cash’s first wife and bore most of his children. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover, it serves as a counterpoint to the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, which some feel was a misrepresentation of who Vivian Liberto really was.

Riddlehoover’s main witnesses are Vivian’s four daughters: singer Rosanne Cash and younger sisters Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Interviewed separately and only occasionally disagreeing on minor details, they present a comprehensive picture of the difficult life their mother led as Cash’s wife, and of the nearly invisible existence she led as his ex-wife. Family photos and archival footage help bring the story to life.

Obviously, the film will appeal most to Cash fans, particularly early scenes that detail how the couple met, fell in love and engaged in a long-distance courtship while Johnny finished his military service. But the account of their difficult marriage, during which Vivian was left to watch over the girls and assorted animals while her husband was away on tour for months at a time, should awaken even non-fans’ empathy. And few will fail to see the injustice of what happened to Vivian after their divorce, when the public forgot her as Johnny and new wife June Carter Cash became the music scene’s new darlings.

The doc makes two things clear: (1) Johnny Cash was an impossible man to live with; and (2) Vivian loved him anyway and always would. It’s also clear that Vivian’s daughters loved her and were eager to undo the damage they felt Walk the Line and time itself had done to her reputation. My Darling Vivian gives them the chance to do just that.

Runner: 4½ stars (out of 5)
My Darling Vivian: 4 stars

My Darling Vivian is available from VOD outlets beginning June 19. For information on how to watch Runner, visit runnerdoc.com.


Woman’s selfless act leads to painful complications

The Surrogate
Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) agrees to give married friends Aaron (Sullivan Jones, left) and Josh (Chris Perfetti) a baby in The Surrogate.

By Richard Ades

The Surrogate is about a woman who is merely, as she puts it, a “vessel” for her best friend’s baby. When her pregnancy develops a complication, however, she finds herself becoming much more.

Writer/director Jeremy Hersh’s drama stars Jasmine Batchelor (The Good Fight) as the complicated New Yorker named Jess. Just why Jess does the things she does is not always easy to understand, but it helps if you pay close attention to the flick’s early moments.

In the first scene, Jess tries to sell would-be fiancé Nate (Brandon Micheal Hall) on a just-friends relationship, telling him she can’t commit because she has no idea what she’ll be doing in a year. She might even join the Peace Corps, she says.

Later, she’s seen trying to find donors to help expand the services of the nonprofit where she works as a web designer. She reluctantly stops only when her boss instructs her to stick to the agency’s core mission.

Jess, it seems, is a relentless do-gooder. Maybe that’s why we don’t see her being truly happy until she finds herself pregnant with the baby she’s agreed to have on behalf of best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband, Aaron (Sullivan Jones). This leaves her so delirious that she’s puzzled when another pregnant woman says she can’t imagine giving up her own baby. To Jess, it seems the most natural thing in the world.

Then things take a startling turn when a prenatal test reveals the baby likely will have Down syndrome. For a while, Jess remains upbeat, cheerfully inviting Josh and Aaron to read up on the condition and to meet the parents of Down children. What she almost willfully fails to notice is that her two friends are going along with her only out of awkward politeness. Only later does she realize that the baby’s prognosis has changed everything.

Hersh’s movie is partly a character study of everyone involved in this gut-wrenching situation, but especially of Jess, who behaves in ways that are both admirable and unadmirable, predictable and unpredictable. Batchelor’s all-in portrayal helps us sympathize with her, whether or not we agree with her actions.

As it goes on, though, the film begins morphing into a debate on a question with no easy answers, in the process bringing up issues of race, class and sexuality. Before it’s over, various characters play the black card, the gay card, even the Jewish card. The effect is that they sometimes seem more like symbols than actual personalities.

This—plus an ending that is abrupt and almost capricious—make this a film that fails to move us quite as much as it enlightens us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Surrogate (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning June 12.