Not For Ourselves Alone (1999)

Genres - History  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Gender Issues, Politics & Government, Social History  |   Run Time - 210 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Between the honest intentions and the overall impact of this portrait of the two most important figures in women's history of the 19th century lies a gap. It's not an enormous one, but it is significant enough to note, and it does highlight the limitations of the Ken Burns style of documentary filmmaking. As always, Burns' film (which he co-produced with Paul Barnes-no director credit is given) is impeccably produced, from the gorgeous cinematography of historical locations, the selection of evocative still photographs, the astute choice of voiceover artists, and the low-key music. The historians selected to comment on the story, all of them women, are uniformly articulate and passionate about this very important subject. It's a great, neglected story, but it finally does not come to life. In some ways, the fact that both women did not live long enough to see their struggle bear real fruit (both had been dead for almost twenty years when the constitutional amendment granting women's suffrage was passed) blunts the impact. But the film has a difficult time portraying the intricate relationship of his leading ladies. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the more philosophical of the two, while Susan B. Anthony was the tireless soldier, riding trains back and forth across the country to speak for their cause wherever a crowd would gather. Some of this comes through in the women's writing, but the serene photographs fall short of conveying the frisson of their friendship and of the movement in general. It's unfair to compare this to Burns's better-known works on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz, but each of those subjects did offer inherently riper visuals (and in one case, audio material), which Burns certainly made full use of. This is not to say that Not for Ourselves isn't a very valuable piece of historical filmmaking, just that its potential for emotional connection isn't fully realized. One could hope that a skilled dramatization might some day be mounted to give flesh to these remarkable women.