Film Review: Equal Means Equal

Tackling a wide variety of topics that concern women’s equality, Kamala Lopez’s unfocused documentary packs too much data and talking heads into its running time, and ultimately plays like a news report rather than a movie.
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Critiquing a documentary exclusively based on filmmaking merits is tricky business, especially when it tackles an inarguably momentous topic like “women’s equality,” as Kamala Lopez’s Equal Means Equal does. The film is billed as a “definitive documentary on the status of women of America” in the way it aims to expose just how far society at large hasn’t come in accepting women as men’s equals and treating them as such. But this self-aware definitiveness sadly comes with baggage that sidesteps certain storytelling principles and filmmaking artistry. Trying to say a lot (actually, everything) about a myriad of areas where women face an uphill battle (from sexual assault to equal pay), Lopez—a filmmaker, women’s-rights activist and prolific actress—crams wall-to-wall statistics, stories and interviewees into her film, applying a “table of contents”-type treatment to our shared frustrations as females. This approach might very well make for a compelling news report, but it sadly doesn’t amount to a forceful documentary film.

Arriving on Women’s Equality Day of August 26 (a specifically designated date to celebrate the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote in 1920) and on the cusp of a critical presidential election with a potentially significant impact on the future of women’s rights in the U.S., Lopez’s film aims to hit screens at a crucial turning point. As she reminds the viewer with every data point and sound bite (and as we witness and experience in various facets of modern-day life), the battle for gender equality is far from over. With her six-years-in-the-making labor of love, she pledges to challenge the preconceived notions around this fight, and through a series of statistics and talking-heads interviews, serves up one sobering reminder after another that true equality has still not been achieved.

To her credit, this is an important reminder that many (including women) can benefit from, given the common yet false belief in society that sexism is ancient history. As Lopez arrives at each of her pillars that include international women’s rights, female incarceration, sex trafficking, domestic violence and female poverty (titles of which are introduced alongside an ironically questionable graphic of a ’50s-style woman with an impossibly thin waistline), the big picture of truth reveals itself. Her film reaches its most urgent level when she unpacks global stats and reveals that around 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime and that there are tens of thousands of victims of female genital mutilation. Along with giving voice to actual victims, Lopez lines up an impressive list of names to speak about the topics covered here; among them are the legendary journalist and activist Gloria Steinem and Oscar-winning actor Patricia Arquette (an executive producer of the doc).

What’s not clear is what the film hopes to achieve with its broad brushstrokes, beyond creating an overarching awareness that things are indeed very dire for our gender around the world. The documentary invites an excess of anger without bothering to give it a much-needed direction. The problem is, each of the topics Lopez touches upon in Equal Means Equal with righteous, well-justified anger could be a standalone subject for a separate film. Women’s equality is an immense and complex matter that contains multitudes, and in attempting to unpack it all at once, Lopez sadly barely scratches the surface. This is a crowded package that overwhelms rather than provokes the viewer.

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