Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde
Erika Cohn’s directing and storytelling do not do a worthy story the justice it deserves. Clocking in at 72 minutes, this documentary is a concise exposé on forced sterilizations in California prisons. Throughout the movie we focus on two women: Kelli Dillon, a Black woman who was imprisoned after killing her husband, and Cynthia Chandler, former Co-Founder of Justice Now and current director of the Bay Area Legal Incubator (BALI), an attorney for compassionate release.
The driving narrative behind this doc is the intentional sterilization of women in prison. The filmmakers emphasize that women of color, and Black women in particular, are who suffer most from these practices. They detail at least a dozen or so cases of forced sterilization. On the surface, this is a story about reproductive injustice but, at the same time, it is so much more than that.
“Did this happen to me because I was all three?”Kelli Dillon, a Black woman and former inmate
The documentary is at its strongest when it talks about the intersections between health care service provision, race, and class in the United States. When these issues are intertwined, they make a compelling argument. The filmmakers also trace the history of eugenics to the early 20th century in the US. During that time period, about 20,000 forced sterilizations occurred in California alone. Later on, state audits and prison reports showed that 1,400 forced sterilizations occurred between 1997 – 2003.
This piece concludes on a more cheerful note with the passage of Senate Bill 1135 (2014), with bipartisan support, that prohibits the forced sterilization of inmates for birth control purposes. In 2019, Assembly Bill 1764 was introduced to establish compensations for forced or involuntary serializations victims. Kelli Dillon hopes that her story will help others come forward and set a standard that other states should follow. I would recommend this movie for anyone who wants a quick introduction to the US criminal justice system or is interested in law.
Belly of the Beast Trailer
Belly of the Beast is currently available to watch through select Virtual Cinema Venues
Follow the links below to read the bills’ text, learn more about Justice Now, view a petition for survivors of forced serialization, and access the doc’s official site.
SB-1135 | AB1764 | Justice Now | Petition | Official Site Get Involved Page
Belly of the Beast is part of the Heartland International Film Festival 2020 line up and Double Exposure Film Festival 2020 line up.
You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on Letterboxd, Twitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.