OTI Online
Spring 1996

by John Stoltenberg

IF YOU FOUND THE MOVIE OF A HANDmaid's Tale preposterously arch - or a yawn, as I did - you might not think another film set in a post-choice future, Rain Without Thunder, could be complexly affecting. It takes place in the year 2042, 20 years after abortion has been outlawed by constitutional amendment. A young white college student (Ali Thomas) sits in a cell block, prosecuted for flying off to Sweden to obtain a "fetal murder," along with her "accomplice," her wealthy suburban mother (Betty Buckley). Among the film's ironic twists is the fact that the new law under which these two women are charged, The Unborn Child Kidnapping Act, has been passed to plug preferential race and class loopholes in the old anti-abortion act.

In a stunning, star-studded cast, we also meet the young woman's white liberal lawyer (Jeff Daniels), a black by-the book prosecutor (Iona Morris), a skeevy warden (Frederick Forrest), and a very frocked priest (Austin Pendleton) who explains dryly why the Roman Catholic Church, although it has agreed to permit condoms, deems each and every conception sacrosanct: because that fertilized egg might be the Second Coming.

But it is this film's knowing depiction of civil rights struggle that is its most astonishing strength. "Women have never organized into a voting bloc," says a smug, revisionist historian (Graham Greene), puffing his pipe. "This is so because women are inclined to collaborate with men," he shrugs, "both in their public and private lives...and they will do so even to the detriment of other women."

On The Issues Magazine - Marilyn Yastrow (Linda Hunt)

In two deftly drawn female characters, whole chapters are conveyed about fierce feminist resistance and cowardly capitulation. One is named Marilyn Yastrow (crisply played by Linda Hunt), the 40ish spokeswoman for a reformist political organization called (with a nod to novelist Margaret) the Atwood Society. "It's not our policy to have a confrontational public image," Yastrow explains. "The Atwood Society would not survive financially if it was to be viewed as a fringe group." The organization has completely given up women's absolute right not to have their bodies interfered with by the state. Aptly mirroring contemporary prochoice "liberals" who have bargained away a Medicaid coverage for poor women here, a legal protection for minors there, the fictional Atwood Society has let civil rights slip-slide away for the sake of the freedom of fewer and fewer. More politic than principled, the group lobbies to have only "terminators" (abortionists) punished, because, as Yastrow argues, pregnancy makes women too enfeebled to consent to a crime.

The truly awesome character, the only one for whom the moral lives of women are still real, is Rosalind Hart (played by the stately Sheila Pinkham in a break-your heart performance). She is 80ish, the founder of the Atwood Society, and considered by Yastrow to be "strident." Hart is in fact a truth-teller shrouded in grief. Her shadowed, mournful eyes sparkle with tears as she recalls:

A woman's movement was born in the mid-twentieth century - a women's political movement which spread like a fire burning the landscape built by men.

Eloquently bespeaking the civil rights faith still ablaze within, Hart tells an investigative reporter (Carolyn McCormick) what happened next:

Our season changed. By the year 2000, a chill was developing. Our spring only lasted two generations. But it only takes two generations. It takes one generation to fight for liberty. It takes only one generation to lose it.

The film's title is a quotation from the former slave Frederick Douglass, who once said, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet avoid confrontation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning...." One senses that in the tension between Yastrow (the political pragmatist) and Hart (the diehard radical), Rain Without Thunder has prophetically sketched the strategic rift in today's feminism between that lobbying which is fundable and that civil rights activism which may be more fundamentally necessary. Evidently privy to this fissure, writer-director Gary Bennett, a white man, has had the nerve to bring it to the screen.

ALONC COMES THIS MOST REMARKABLE feature-length film ostensibly about abortion - a movie that could have altered the outcome of congressional debate about the "partial-birth" procedure, a movie that could rock the 1996 elections - and I happen upon it, unhyped, at my local video shop. Rain Without Thunder, shot in 1991 while an anti-choice Republican was President, had a brief, unprepossessing art house release beginning in 1992. Why was this powerful film not huge? Why had I never heard of it? Orion, its distributor, was coming out of a money mess at the time. Yet when Rain Without Thunder finally reached theaters in some 20 U.S. cities, why didn't it garner attention as did other superb recent films exploring feminist themes - Priest, say (which, despite what many critics said, was centrally about child sexual abuse), or Once Were Warriors (about battery)? Browsing through some print reviews supplied OTI by the film's brave independent producers, I get the picture. Critics - echoing the chorus of editorial miniminds who stand sentinel over which insights are allowed to find their audience in premillennial America - called the film "solemn and sometimes tediously preachy," "a tirade ...unleavened by subtlety, humor or even much imagination," its tone "hysterical." They meant, of course, that it's deeply and truly political - and it could ignite some landscape.

Coproducer Nanette Sorenson told OTI that older women were often moved during screenings of Rain Without Thunder, but younger women could not relate to such a civil rights rollback, and "feminist organizations were too busy in the political arena" to lend it support: "Planned Parenthood in New York," for instance, "was absolutely rude to us." Coproducer Gary Sorenson, her spouse, told OTI that cable rights have not yet been bought. Big mistake, HBO. This rental is cinematic samizdat.

JOHN STOLTENBERG is executive editor of ON THE ISSUES.

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