This story contains mild spoilers for The Glorias, out on Amazon Prime Video September 30.
A pivotal scene in The Glorias, Julie Taymor’s artful and creative biopic about Gloria Steinem based on her 2015 memoir, My Life On The Road, shows the feminist leader (played by Alicia Vikander in this segment) finding her signature look: aviator glasses. Oh, no, the saleswoman tells her as she tries them on, she can’t pick those — they “hide your pretty face.” Exactly, says Gloria. That’s the point.
Steinem’s aviators have gotten their fair share of screen time this year, first on Rose Byrne in Hulu on FX’s Mrs America, and now, in The Glorias, which premieres on Amazon Prime Video September 30. The two portrayals couldn’t be more different. Where the critically acclaimed TV show focused on the tensions between conservative leader Phyllis Schlaffly and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, the movie instead hones in more closely on Steinem’s life (played by four different actresses, including Vikander and Julianne Moore) , weaving an unconventional narrative that transcends linear timelines. One thing they share, however? Another woman with distinctive accessories steals the show.
In her flashy cowboy hat, pink sunglasses, and self-proclaimed “Daffy Duck” fake lashes, activist and lawyer Flo Kennedy (played by Niecy Nash in Mrs America and Lorraine Toussaint in The Glorias) should be a pivotal player in any conversation about the early days of the feminist movement. Yet, she remains a far less publicized figure than Steinem, whom she mentored as a young public speaker, or even the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she preceded at Columbia Law School.
The Glorias in particular attempts to rectify the oversight, shining a light on Kennedy, as well as other women of color like Dorothy Pittman Hughes (played here by Janelle Monae), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), who helped and guided Steimen in her journey to becoming the feminist celebrity she is today. But they still only exist as stars in Steinem’s orbit, shining brightly, but only in her presence. They deserve more. And after watching Nash and Toussaint capture this mesmerizing and charismatic woman with such outrageous flair in two ensemble casts, I need more. Why continue to relegate her to a side player in stories largely focusing on white women? Where is the Flo Kennedy biopic that her trailblazing — and honestly cinematic — life so richly deserves?
Born Florynce Rae Kennedy in Kansas City, MO, in 1916, her keen sense of justice emerged from an incident early on in her childhood: After receiving threats from local Ku Klux Klan members her father, a Pullman train porter, ran them off his land with a shotgun.
In the 1940s, she moved to New York, and applied to Columbia University’s law program. She was rejected, with the dean of admissions claiming it was because she was a woman, rather than because she was Black. Kennedy didn’t buy it, and threatened to sue the school for racial discrimination. She was admitted and, in 1948, became one of only eight women studying law at Columbia, and one of the very first Black women to enter the field, period. In 1951, she graduated and started her own practice. On her client list: the estates of music legends Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, the Black Panther Party, and Black activists Assata Shakur and H. Rap Brown.
By the time Steinem came onto the scene, Kennedy was already an established figure in the fight for women’s rights. She was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Political Caucus, a vocal proponent of abortion rights, and in 1973, founded The National Black Feminist Organization, which stressed the need for intersectionality in fighting oppression. That same year, she organized a protest against the lack of women’s bathrooms at Harvard University, encouraging protesters to throw jars of urine on the steps of Lowell Hall, thereafter known as "The Great Harvard Pee-In."
But even beyond her many, many achievements, Kennedy’s personality alone warrants the big screen treatment. In 1974, People Magazine called her the “biggest, loudest, and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist-activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause.” Once asked by a disgruntled man if she and Steinem were lesbians, she responded: “Are you the alternative?” (Kennedy married once, to a man 10 years her junior. In her autobiography, she later wrote “marriage is a crock. Why should you lock yourself in the bathroom just because you have to go three times a day?”)
In fact, she was no stranger to showbiz. Kennedy dabbled in acting throughout her life, appearing in 1970’s The Landlord, 1971’s Who Says I Can’t Ride A Rainbow (acting alongside Morgan Freeman), and 1983’s Born In Flames. It’s a cruel irony, then, that she continues to serve as a supporting character in a narrative that she should be leading. Steinem herself said as much in her speech to the audience after The Glorias’ Sundance premiere, noting that her Black peers didn't get the attention they deserved in the stories told about the early days of the movement.
All this isn’t to say we don’t need multiple biopics about women like Gloria Steinem. This year alone, Thomas Edison has been played by Jim Gaffigan and Benedict Cumberbatch in two separate films about the development of the lightbulb. The point is that we need more films about the feminist movement and its leaders, but from different angles and perspectives. We need to illuminate different lives and stories, and give women directors room to tell them in innovative ways. The Glorias is sometimes messy; it’s ambitious and artsy in ways that don’t always work. But by painting Steinem’s story on such a large and intricate canvas, Taymor sets the stage for a new generation of biopics interrogating the legacy of women leaders. You move, Hollywood.