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Kate Erbland

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Kate is a freelance writer interested in all things cinematic and literary. She lives in New York City with two cats, two turtles, one boyfriend, and a frightening number of sensible canvas totes.

Girls on Fire: Katniss Everdeen and 10 of the Most Revolutionary Women in Movies

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For fans of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” book series, the sea change that takes hold in this week’s opening “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” big screen adaptation won’t surprise, but movie-goers who are simply expecting more love triangles, more child death, and more ritualistic fashion may be in for a shock.

“The Twilight Saga” this is not, and the interest of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen go far beyond which boy she thinks is cuter (is Katniss on Team Peeta or Team Gale? Stay tuned!) and even beyond a latent case of PTSD caused by all that peer-murdering in the first film. In short, the vague promise of the original film is about to start coming true in “Catching Fire” – Katniss Everdeen is primed to become the major symbol of a stirring revolution. Her saucy attitude and jazzy Mockingjay icon are fine enough reasons to laud her as a figurehead, but our Hunger Games Victor is not content for a wholly symbolic position – she’s ready to start a revolution, and she’s far from the only big screen lady who has attempted that sort of bloody and bold maneuver before.

KATNISS EVERDEEN – “THE HUNGER GAMES”

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There’s always been something about Katniss Everdeen – or, at least that’s what the first film in the YA franchise taught us. The resident of the impoverished District 12 is a long time rule-bucker, sneaking off to the woods to hunt illicit game, freely trading for goods at the illegal outpost known as The Hub, and volunteering as Tribute in place of her younger sister Prim (while not illegal per se, it was certainly an untraditional act). Though the first film in the series centered on Katniss fighting for her life in the games arena, her desire to subvert the rules that had been followed for decades stirred something in the people, and the second film makes it obvious that Katniss’ sacrifices have not gone unnoticed.

While the final two films in the four-film franchise will undoubtedly focus on the groundswell revolution that Katniss and her Mockingjay have sparked, there’s plenty of game-changing behavior to be found in “Catching Fire.” The ever-curious Katniss figures out early on that war is brewing in the districts, and her victory tour appearances at each section of Panem only stir up more ill will towards the Capitol and more of a believe that the rise of Katniss can somehow help drive forward big changes. Sure, Katniss might not be sold on her ability to change the status quo, but you know who is? Evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who goes to great lengths to try to tarnish, maim, and kill his little revolutionary. Sorry your plan backfires, big guy, and your interest in the hardened victor only legitimatizes her role in the coming revolution!

CHRISTINE – “SOMETHING IN THE AIR” 

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French new wave cinema was dotted with plenty of savvy, feminine, tough, and beautiful women entrenched in various revolutions in various ways – think Anne Wiazemsky as Veronique in “La Chinoise,” Clotilde Hesme as Lilie in “Regular Lovers,” and Anna Karina as Paula in “Made in U.S.A.” – so it’s no surprise that this particular brand of leading lady is now being reconfigured for new features. As Christine in Olivier Assayas’ nostalgic (and admirably so) “Something in the Air,” Lola Creton joins the ranks of plenty of wild and revolutionary women before her.

Christine is the spark that lights up young reactionary Gilles (Clement Metayer), a shiftless young man who is desperate to engage in his own kind of revolution, though he’s unsure how to do years after the events of May 1968, a period of tremendous unrest in France, thanks to protests, strikes, and violence. Christine excels at both inspiring Gilles, organizing her moviemaking collective, cooking, and essentially serving as the driving force for a group that would otherwise sit around, engaging in a lot of worthless chat. She’s a latter day French new wave heroine, and her character and spirit are both fresh and totally in line with the aims of everyone that came before her.

NORMA RAE– “NORMA RAE”

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“UNION.”

Based on the real-life revolutionary tactics employed by former textile mill worker Crystal Lee Sutton, the Sally Field-starring “Norma Rae” is all about the kind of modern revolution that still takes place today – unionization. Field’s Norma Rae Webster finds herself unexpectedly inspired by a speech by a union organizer, one that just so happens to hit her eyes and ears as she’s coming to the realization that the working conditions she’s expected to labor under for minimum wage just aren’t going to cut it.

Norma Rae is a tough cookie, and she doesn’t relent on her wishes to unionize her mill, even when both her management and her husband try to get her to stop. She finally makes her stand – literally – in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day at work, taking marker to cardboard to spell out those infamous five letters on a sign that she holds up until the entire factory falls silent. Sutton did the exact same thing at her own factory, but while she was fired for actions, she eventually got what she wanted – unionization – just like Norma Rae does in the Martin Ritt film. The production was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and Field herself snapped up her first Best Actress Oscar for her role as a real life revolutionary.

MARIE I & MARIE II– “DAISIES”

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Sometimes the most revolutionary act of all is a good old-fashioned trip to the discothèque. Well, kind of. Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Czechoslovak farce may be wildly amusing, but it also hit screens at a time when the free-wheeling ladies at its center were revolutionaries in their own right.

Starring Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová as Marie I and Marie II, the film was almost immediately banned from theaters, a solid way to accidentally label anything as necessary and important (sorry, Czech film board!). While the plot of “Daisies” sounds like something that would be made today by the mumblecore crowd – two friends pal around, eat a lot of food (a lot), go dancing, and meet up with a sugar daddy – but its classification of “depicting the wanton” is nothing to sniff at. Marie I and Marie II want to be bad, they want to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to stick it to their Communist leaders. Their transgressions are complete but relatable, and it’s no wonder the Czech government was so damn afraid of them.

 

JOAN OF ARC – “THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC”

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Nothing quite drives home the fact that being a revolutionary is damn hard than the possibility of being burnt at the stake. Joan of Arc is, of course, the poster girl for such punishments. While she’s been the subject of plenty of films, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film is the gold standard, thanks to its fact-based approach (it’s based on the actual record of her trial) and the stunning lead performance by Renee Jeanne Falconetti.

This thing has passion to spare, and its principal focus on the revolutionary’s trial, time in prison, vicious torture, and eventual execution make it almost impossibly effecting to watch. While Dreyer’s film might not have the battlefield-set punch of something like Luc Besson’s “The Messenger,” it comes with the hard-won triumph that comes with any kind of conviction. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is certainly about the greatest historical female solider the world has ever known (divine callings have a way of pushing people beyond limits), but instead of focusing on any one of her many battles during the Hundred Years’ War, the films pulls tight on what happens after you go rogue and revolutionary.

PUSSY RIOT – “PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER”

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The girls of Russian punk band Pussy Riot are very real, very alive, and still very much pushing for their own revolution. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s popular documentary, which hit screens just this year, chronicles the all-girls band’s infamous February 2012 performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, staged as protest against the Orthodox Church leader’s support of Vladimir Putin during his election campaign, and its shocking aftereffects. The ladies in the band knew they were risking a lot – a number of them still remain anonymous and they perform in masks – but they had no idea just how much was at stake.

Days after the performance, group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested and charged with hooliganism – the trio were eventually sentenced to two years imprisonment for their acts, though Samutsevich eventually was just put on probation. The girls became cause célèbre and darlings of a number of human rights groups, all of which were determined to free them. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remain in jail, but they are both currently classified as political prisoners, and their family, friends, and supporters continue to wage war against Putin and his government.

ALEIDA MARCH – “CHE”

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Behind plenty of great male revolutionaries there are still greater female revaluates that love them and the cause they are fighting for. Such is the case with Che Guevara’s beloved second wife Aleida March, a dedicated member of Castro’s Cuban army.

Aleida has always been a sizable part of Che’s portrayals on the big screen, but Catalina Sandino Moreno’s take on the role in Steven Soderbergh’s two-part “Che” is something to be seen. A gun-toting badass who matches pace with her husband at every turn, Aleida is a firecracker who gives new meaning to the vow “till death do us part.” The Colombian actress may have a resume peppered with calling card roles – hello, “Maria Full of Grace” – but her ability to fully disappear into Aleida for “Che” is a testament to both her talent and her character’s consuming and revolutionary nature.

WINNIE MANDELA – “MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM””

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The wife of South African freedom fighter has long been a controversial figure (to put it mildly) even amongst her own community, thanks to her tough-as-nails views on the government, apartheid, and the methods necessary to ensure freedom for her people. While Mrs. Mandela has been the subject of a handful of films – including 2010’s “Mrs. Mandela” and 2011’s “Winnie” – the best look at the former wife of Nelson (the pair divorced in 1996) comes care of this month’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

Though the Justin Chadwick film initially unfolds as a biopic about Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), the introduction of Winnie (played beautifully by Naomie Harris of “Skyfall” fame) is a key turning point in the production. As Nelson’s battle for equality turns violent, ultimately landing him in prison at Robben Island, Winnie’s fight takes off, and she endures abuses from the government, her own stints in jail, and plenty of personal frustrations as her militant attitude makes her a force to be reckoned with on her own hard-fought terms. By the time Harris reenacts a political rally in which Winnie showed up wearing her own set of fatigues (alluringly belted, it must be noted), it’s obvious that the wife of Nelson has become her own revolutionary force. And she had – since May of 2009, the real-life Winnie Mandela has served as a member of the South African Parliament.

EVEY – “V FOR VENDETTA”

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Natalie Portman’s Evey may initially enter James McTeigue’s futuristic thriller as a complicit government worker, but she sure as shooting doesn’t go out that way. In a shadowy new London, a common man who simply goes by “V” (Hugo Weaving) sets out for vengeance, verve, and some vendetta-pushing, picking up young Evey along the way. After infiltrating the government-sponsored news agency where young Evey works, V takes to the airwaves to spread his good word – a request for those who are like-minded to battle the government and gather a year later to show their desires to the world – and it’s plucky Evey who keeps a police officer at bay so that V can get away clean. Well, almost clean, as Evey gets knocked out in the fray and V has no choice but to take her with him.

Evey is eventually captured by the police (with bonus head-shaving!), and is soon driven to sympathizing with V’s aims and loathing the government with her very being. Of course, there’s a big twist to Evey’s imprisonment (which we won’t give away here), but her experiences push her and V to the brink of a major act of revolution (and a major crime against the government). V may be the one with the vendetta, but it’s Evey who holds all the cards and emerges as the catalyst for a new breed of rule.

CLEOPATRA – “CLEOPATRA”

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 epic may be best known for its shockingly bloated price tag and its drama-filled shoot, but “Cleopatra” pulled out all the stops to bring the legendary story of the Egyptian queen’s rise to power to the big screen for massive public consumption. Putting Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous role may still seem like stunt casting, but the larger than life story of the duplicitous ruler all but requires the use of the biggest movie star on the planet (hell, Angelina Jolie could still play her in that long-talked-about new version).

While the veracity of many details of Mankiewicz’s film may be up for debate, the few facts we do know about the last Egyptian pharaoh are ripe for the cinematic picking. Mankiewicz’s film imagined the ruler as a glamorous queen with a hunger to both rule and to be loved – her eventual pairing with Mark Antony (Richard Burton) filled both those desires (at least for awhile). Taylor’s Cleopatra is a military mastermind and a big-time political maneuverer, able to demand whole chunks of the Roman Empire. Sure, the entire thing didn’t exactly work out for her or Antony, but she was a powerful ruler who went up against the world’s biggest superpower with gusto and glamour.


Categories: Features

Tags: Che, Cleopatra, Daisies, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Erbland, Katniss everdeen, Revolutionary women, Something in the Air, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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