WRITER-DIRECTOR-ACTRESS Kamala Lopez is an outspoken proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. She believes that, more than any other legislation on behalf of women, the ERA could turn the tide on the systemic sexism and biases against women — including the gender pay gap, sexual assault and rape, pregnancy discrimination, domestic violence, female poverty and homelessness, health care and reproductive rights — by its assertion that “civil rights may not be denied on the basis of one’s sex.”
Her film Equal Means Equal takes on these weighty issues in a sobering 94-minute wake-up call to American women on the vast inequities they face in the United States, while providing a compelling argument for the urgency of ratifying this constitutional amendment, which was first introduced in 1923 and passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification in 1972. Beginning in 2009, Lopez has traveled the United States, interviewing a who’s who of international women’s rights leaders, including Gloria Steinem and Terry O’Neill, and collecting countless stories of women and girls from all walks of life who have had to suffer “tolerated injustice.” Among them are: A mother whose ex-husband murdered her three children after she was denied a restraining order; a victim of a campus gang rape whose attempts to use the Violence Against Women Act to make a legal claim against her university were thwarted; an area manager who, upon retirement, discovered that she had been paid nearly $1,000 less per month than the lowest paid male area manager at the company. In all three cases, the US Supreme Court ruled against the women.
“In other words, the fact that women were deliberately excluded from the Constitution when it was written in 1787 and classified as chattel or property was never addressed or rectified in any way. It was just swept under the carpet,” Lopez said in her opening remarks to a small screening room of reporters on a Friday leading into a busy Oscar weekend. Joined by Academy Award–winning actress Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) and more than 20 women leaders and activists, Lopez made her case for a national movement to pass the ERA and ensure full legal equality for the majority of Americans.
“Women today participate in every aspect of American society,” she continued. “Yet our participation remains tangential, our impact mitigated by a seeming inability to push through to the 30 percent participation that we have yet to achieve across the board — whether as CEOs, board members, pastors, mayors, college presidents, or members of Congress; women have yet to achieve 30 percent presence in any of these categories — and that matters.”
Certainly, the significance of having Hillary Clinton nominated as the first woman presidential candidate of any major party in the United States is not lost on Lopez. Yet when we spoke back in February, not one of the presidential hopefuls, including Clinton, had yet addressed the passage of the ERA.
“This system has let women down,” Lopez said. “This system has used women, be they white, conservative, Republican, evangelical women; be they black southern women; be they New York intellectual women. I don’t care what woman she is, the establishment has used her as a political football to pass back and forth, but never actually do anything. There is no intent, because we are a useful thing. We’re sexually useful, we’re useful for labor, we’re useful in merchandising. You can use us for anything. Well, I say, the time of us allowing ourselves to be used must end.”
In the months since our first interview, I have had a few more conversations with Lopez, by phone and email, as she has continued to travel with the film both abroad and around the country. She is seeking broader distribution for the film, which opens in selected theaters in Los Angeles on August 26, on September 2 in New York, and on September 6 on Digital HD and On Demand. The following draws on all our discussions to date.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: We’re currently in a climate where abortion legislation is again under fire, rape kits are backlogged in a multitude of cities, women still earn less than men across the board; we have a woman vying for president of the United States and a GOP frontrunner who vilifies women in his public speeches. Was there an urgency for you to get your film out sooner than later?
KAMALA LOPEZ: This film is critical in this climate. The fact that so many women are unaware that their civil rights and their human rights are being violated — that they have been continuously violated since the nation’s founding and that we have yet to address this — has a direct impact not only on these elections, but on how women make decisions in their daily lives. So when we’re looking at the multiple crises across our country, be they failures of the physical or the systemic/philosophic infrastructure, we need to understand that the inequality baked into our foundational document is a major factor in all of them, and addressing it can be a major game changer.
My feeling is that women are uniters. I don’t like to generalize, but I will, in this case, make some generalizations about what women are like. On the whole, I would say women bring to the table a sense of diplomacy, a willingness to collaborate. We saw that with the women in the Senate who — I believe it was an issue related to the debt ceiling — sorted it out and came out with an answer while the men were arguing and arguing. [Ed: In October 2013, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) led a bipartisan coalition of congresswomen who met one night over pizza and wine and broke the logjam to open the government and avert default.] I have complete faith in the women of this country to bring us together — to calm down the rhetoric and start actually doing things, not just jabbering about them.
You have said that this documentary “is not just a movie, but a campaign to reignite national dialogue.” How can you use this film to break through the media clutter and get your message out?
It’s already clear that we are breaking through the clutter. This is a message that resonates with 51 percent of the population and has a direct impact on their lives. What we did during Oscar weekend, with the great help of Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Lawrence, Lily Tomlin, and all the advocates that we brought in from every part of the country, spurred the Congress to hold their first hearings — though unofficial — on the floor of the House to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment.
There’s no doubt that what we’re doing has impact. The strongest equal pay law in the nation went into effect on January 1 because State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) saw Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, in which she called for women’s rights, and recognized that the time was right.
The zeitgeist is with us on this. The momentum is now. We must seize it. That’s why it hasn’t been difficult at all — from the very start of this project — to get press, to get support, to get people behind us. It’s a no-brainer, something that is long overdue, that has been overlooked and that now has to be addressed. My position is that this is the most impactful thing we can do to rectify an imbalance materializing in many unpleasant ways across our nation — often in very aggressive and violent ways.
You have assembled a great number of interviews with activists and women from all walks of life. I can imagine a producer saying: “There are too many interviews, too many issues. It’ll be unwieldy, hard to follow.” How did you select your interview subjects? And how did you go about narrowing your focus?
What I did, essentially, was educate myself, to my own satisfaction, on topic after topic. So I would look at domestic violence and ask: What’s the situation here? I would try to understand that issue from as many angles as possible, talking to as many people as I could.
And it was an extremely painful process, because we had hundreds of hours; hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage and transcripts to go through: 26 bins! So my writing partner [Gini Sikes] and I would separate each topic — say, immigrant women, or women living on Native American reservations — and read through the transcripts, highlighting and color coding what people said on that topic. We’d pull those clips and put them in the bin. Then I could sit down and watch the two hours of Native American women on reservations as one long series, and I would start to write that part of it.
It took about a year to do that, which is why, initially, our first cut came in at seven and a half hours. My thought was: This is a series! This is American women! This is what’s happening! This is not a 90-minute story. This is the story of 161 million people that we’re trying to put into one movie. And I got so much flack and so much shit from people telling me that I was unfocused, that my goals were too large, that it was simply impossible. This is half the population — and you can’t grant it 10 hours of programming?
Because no one wanted to pay for that, or show it, or would give a rat’s ass about it. You can barely get ’em to care about a 90-minute movie, let alone hours and hours and hours of women bitching.
This is an elephant. You can’t just look at the toenail and think you understand. So, yeah, it was a pain in the ass, and, yeah, it was hard to wrap your mind around it, but I think I’ve made the connections very clear, with all the writing and rewriting and 150 drafts of the script. Now we have a 94-minute story that explains why gender discrimination is bolstered by the denial of equality in our Constitution.
I could not have proven that point unequivocally had I not tortured myself to get enough material. The film leaves no room for discussion about whether this is or is not occurring. This isn’t, “Oh, let me wake up and make a little film about women.” No. This work is meant to bring equality to half the planet, or at least to start that ball rolling — and it has started it.
How did you ultimately narrow it down to 12 topic areas?
Those 12 affect vast numbers of women, and they all, presumably, have a legal remedy. We have an Equal Pay Act, so where’s the equal pay? We have a Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and yet, every single time, you see it’s complete bullshit. Restraining order? Only works if they want to enforce it. I mean, you’re a mom with kids and your husband’s beating you — you think you have something to count on. You think, “I’m gonna get a restraining order. That’ll teach him.” It’s meaningless. It’s mean … ing … less. If he can come take your kids and shoot them in the head after you’ve been to the police station nine times, trying to keep him away, that means that law is meaningless. It’s a bait-and-switch. It’s smoke and mirrors.
What did you have to leave behind on the cutting room floor?
So much. So much. The stories of the Native American women, immigrant women, trans women; women who fall in this legal gray area, which is absolutely astonishing. The border patrol, and the incredible number of police molestations. I mean, there was just so much. The organ stealing from babies.
Was there ever a moment when you thought this was too big of a project, that there were too many moving parts, that you’d sacrificed enough?
“Nobody cares.” That’s what I kept hearing. “Nobody cares.” “This is old news.” “The Equal Rights Amendment is dead.” “Women are empowered.”
CNN, when I went in there, told me that they weren’t doing stories that related to women this year. And I said, “What?” And she said, “Don’t roll your eyes at me.” They’re doing five movies in an election year and not one has anything to do with us.
The film shows how all these issues intersect in women’s lives. And I saw some intersections with my own life as well. There were interviews with the attorneys at the Equal Rights Advocates, who are working on behalf of the JazzWomen and Girls Advocates, of which I am a board member …
How neat! I love those people. They’re our warrior team. I love them!
Yes, it was cool see them in the film. They worked with us in our effort to collaborate with Jazz at Lincoln Center to institute blind auditions in the orchestra, and we have just made progress on that. Then there was the interview with Rita Henley Jensen who, like me, is a member of the Journalism and Women Symposium — and I remember her launching Women’s eNews the same year I joined the organization in 1999.
And there were other women I’d known or stories I’ve covered, and I realized that I wasn’t just a reporter looking at this film from the outside to critique or examine it …
I’ve gotta tell you, this is what I find special about this movie, if we want to call it a movie — it may need a different name. Every single woman who has seen this film has responded as you have. In some cases, when the situation that resonates is especially traumatic, women couldn’t even function after watching the film.
We showed the domestic violence chunk [of the film] in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to benefit a domestic violence shelter, and over half of the questions, and there were hundreds of questions, had to be passed on to law enforcement. We had to have eight social workers in the audience dealing with PTSD.
At the screening in New York, Rita was to moderate the panel, but when the panel started, both Rita and Dina Bakst, who’s the head of A Better Balance (a legal team advocating for the rights of working families), were unable to speak. Dina was crying. She said, “I’m not upset. I’m just angry.” She kept saying, “I’m just angry,” as she cried. My director of photography [Jendra Jarnagin] had to run out of the room during the filming — and she was the one filming! Her mother was killed during a domestic violence incident on her wedding night. So this is personal. This is personal for us. For every one of us.
My mom said they used to do these things in the ’60s where you would all get together and talk, like social consciousness groups — this is that for us. This is what this needs to be. When you show this movie, and then women talk to each other and share what they’ve been through, they create a better future together.
You established your production company, Heroica Films, as a vehicle to produce media for and about women. How did this film become a movement for and about women?
It’s one of those things that you run into and you think it couldn’t possibly be true. It’s like suddenly seeing this thing you’ve been looking at in the sky is actually a light bulb. All these years you thought it was the sun. It’s a light bulb. That’s what I felt like when I found out that I don’t have equal rights. I had wonderful parents, a great education — in that sense, a privileged background. I bought hook, line, and sinker into the narrative that I was empowered, that I could be whomever I wanted to be.
But it’s a lie.
Did being in Hollywood, being part of an industry where women are definitely not equal, change that perspective?
Well, you know, being a female — and a female of color — in Hollywood, you have to have a very strong sense of yourself. I started in the business when I was seven. I was on Sesame Street when I was 14. So I was always privy to the situation, and I was always very aggressive about it. I’d been fired multiple times. I was in Texas doing Walker, Texas Ranger and someone [on set] Sieg Heil!’ed me. So I called a press conference with all the networks and said that I’d been brought down there to do a TV show, and there was some crazy, racist shit going on, and I wasn’t about to put up with it. I was supposed to do a bunch of shows on that series, but that was the end of that. They also wouldn’t feed me. The lunch trucks were all KKK …
Oh yeah, but this was a long time ago.
But let me tell you, I’ve seen it all.
Walker, Texas Ranger was on the air in the ’90s [it aired from 1993–2001]. That wasn’t all that long ago.
I could show you some places I’ve worked where it might as well have been a hundred years ago. But that’s neither here nor there.
I decided, from my perspective: What can I do? I can make my own! That’s all I’ve done since, because nobody’s gonna give you shit. Before then, I’d played crack whores, but I’d never played somebody like myself, or someone from my background or experience. I was very angry for a while, especially with the Latina thing, because I’m half Indian, for God’s sake. Just because my last name is Lopez I would always have to [lapses into a Spanish dialect stereotype]: Com eeeen, and talk like theeees for every part or I was never gonna get no theeeen! And that really starts to wear on you.
Then I thought: Why am I expecting others to write about my experience or present me with opportunities about my experience? They don’t know my experience and I don’t know theirs, but they’re in the power positions. So they’re writing about their experiences. At a certain point, take it on. Just take it on.
That’s one thing I do have to say: We need more courage, we need more bravery, we need more women to be willing to take the hits. The women in Afghanistan had a thousand guys trying to kill them when they protested, and we can’t stand up in the United States and say we want equal rights because we have trepidations about the response? We need to grow a pair of larger ovaries, and step it up.
Is it really that women need bigger ovaries, or the fact that women just don’t know? You said yourself you had no idea that the ERA hadn’t been passed. Is the onus solely with women?
I was in Beverly Hills yesterday getting my nails done — paying an inordinate, I don’t know, $20 for my nails — and the song they’re playing, this is how it starts: “Bitch. Fuck you, you stupid bitch.” And there’s the bomp, bomp, bomp. Bitch … bomp, bomp, you fuckin’ bitch … bomp, bomp … And this is in a salon where there are only women! Filled with women. And I said, “Hey, who’s the manager here? I’m paying you money, and this song … I’m very confused. Am I being called a bitch? I don’t appreciate it. Turn this song off.”
Can I tell you what happened next? The women, they said, “Yo, if you don’t like it, maybe you should go listen to Shania Twain.” We have internalized our own exploitation. We are the delivery service. We’re twerking ourselves right into nirvana, and I gotta tell you, that’s a dangerous fucking position to take — to put all your chips in the basket of sexual attraction and sexuality. There’s a major deficiency of critical thinking here.
But I can’t blame these young women. They’re being propagandized from every direction, and there’s no counter-propaganda. I mean, I don’t blame them, but we’ve got to wake them up! We gotta throw some cold water on that twerking.
Earlier you mentioned the role of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech last year in pushing the the ERA forward. How much of an impact do you see coming from Vice President Joe Biden’s sexual violence speech at this year’s Oscars?
I thought it was great. I love it when men of good will stand up alongside women and for women. It’s the correct thing to do, and more men need to be doing it. The vice president set a great example. I’m also a big fan of his wife, Jill Biden. She’s a very positive role model for women and girls. She does a lot of good work.
It’s interesting that, while Hillary Clinton stands a good chance of becoming this country’s first woman president, we’re also seeing a disconnect between women generationally, racially, and economically. And that’s just within the Democratic Party. Did the issues you chose to address in the film argue for a certain universality?
Absolutely. The film is for all of us, not for some of us. This is something that we have to work on together. Although we are not a monolith but 161 million unique individuals, we still must — at least for the next year — choose to set our differences aside, take the larger view, and elevate.
I’m not saying other things aren’t relevant. But we are women, and we have the capacity to look around and say: Wait a minute! We’re trying to get over there. What’s the best way for us to get there, bringing together the most people in the most positive way, harnessing all of our energy in order to get this one basic goal accomplished?
Then we can start to bifurcate and fragment and refocus on our particular agendas. But can we please, for the love of Goddess, come together right now while we still have the opportunity and make this paradigm shift? Because if we don’t, and if we get trapped in the ivies and whirlpools and cul-de-sacs of semantics and other people’s agendas, we will not get this done and the future for women is bleak.
And by “get this done” you’re referring to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment?
Yeah, I mean providing legal equality for all citizens of this nation, freeing women from the second-class-citizen status to which they have been consigned by the establishment. You cannot build anything on half a foundation, with half the population left out. The building is shaky and it’s gonna fall on us, and we see it falling on us here and there, and we can see the plaster is cracking, but we don’t question the foundation. That’s what I’m begging. Anybody out there: Black, white, man, woman, child. I don’t really care. It just has to be examined. It’s a matter of principle. It really is the great lie that we’re living. You cannot push justice forward on a lie.
Granted, there are a number of issues that you’ve put forth in the film that could reasonably be addressed by the passage of the ERA. But then there are implicit gender biases, misogynic attitudes that don’t just go away because a law’s been passed. Can the ERA help that?
It’s the beginning of everything. Without it, there is nothing. It is the finger in the dike to give us some time. It is that thing we can point back to and say: Hey, wait a minute. We’re not dogs or cats, and we expect a certain level of human civility. It is the thing without which change is impossible.
Your conviction is palpable in your narration for the film. Why did you decide to narrate it yourself, to be part of the piece rather an omniscient, invisible director?
The omniscient director involves a budget. People don’t understand that it’s been just me, my mom, and my husband trudging around with a little hand-held camera for eight years. I don’t know how to get myself out of my own life. Who would be asking the questions? Who are these magical elves that would give a shit? There aren’t any. Why has this movie not been made? Why is nothing about this taught in our schools? Why don’t we know these things?
So it was out of necessity?
Absolutely. And why can’t I take my space? Would the same question be asked of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore? I doubt it.
I’m more interested as a matter of process, particularly as it relates to how you approached the narrative thread, guided the interviews and your on-camera scenes, as well as what you wanted to have for B-roll, etc. Was there a specific game plan? Or was it a matter of: Let’s go in and see what we can get?
Well, yeah. Basically for the first five years or so, we did interviews. Whenever I would be speaking somewhere, I would see who the other panelists and speakers were, and some of them would be very important figures, and I would prearrange to interview them. So I was just gathering interviews. Then, as I said, I had that whole long period where I had to go through all the transcripts and separate everything out per issue, and then write the script. After I wrote the script, I wrote the narration and made the connections, etc., and that was a very, very long process. And it continues.
This is a moving target. This is living history. Cases were happening as the movie was taking shape. So we were constantly having to rewrite things and reshoot things and readjust things. It’s a behemoth. And it’s gonna keep evolving. That’s the crazy thing, and at a certain point — seven years was kind of it for me — you’ve got to get it out.
I mean, I had to take some things out of the movie that still break my heart. But they just can’t be in there. People weren’t going to see the movie at all if I had kept that extra half an hour in there. I would have bitten off my nose to spite my face. I had to be able to say, “That woman’s story will be highlighted elsewhere,” wherever it is.
Seven years was your “I’ve got to get it out there” mark. But was there something specific that made you know the time was right to get it out now?
I couldn’t keep borrowing money from my mother for the rest of my life, so I did this Kickstarter [campaign], and we went out and did two shoots — one in New York that had a lot of people, got a lot of material, and then a big one in Los Angeles.
After that, I was like, “We need to start editing this thing now.” However, as you can imagine, the editing process is, you know, it’s just … it’s years! So when you say, “Okay, we’re done!” It doesn’t really mean we’re done. And, as we were editing, we would still be shooting things. I won’t be surprised if I had to go shoot something tomorrow and stick it in there.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the co-author of Swirling. She is currently writing and producing an independent feature film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, and producing a women in jazz documentary, “…But Can She Play?”