‘Shouting Down Midnight’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

Gretchen Stoeltje’s documentary chronicles former Texas state senator Wendy Davis’ abortion filibuster and its impact on a new generation of activists.

About one minute into Shouting Down Midnight, Gretchen Stoeltje’s ardent documentary about Texan lawmakers’ repeated attempts to eliminate access to safe and legal abortions, footage of an older demonstrator appears on screen. The person, whose gray hair peeks out from under a hat, holds up a sign that reads: “I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit.” The short clip, sandwiched between one of former state senator Wendy Davis passionately addressing a crowd of demonstrators and another of protesters presumably marching for the same cause decades earlier, reveals a disconcerting truth about civil rights: They are always under siege.

In societies built on inequality, equal protections under the law are not guaranteed. The spoils of hard-fought battles in one generation are not promised for the next. Shouting Down Midnight understands this, and perhaps that’s why Stoeltje’s informative film uses Davis’ historic filibuster as a point source — an electrifying moment that activated more Texan women to organize. Watching Davis stand on the state capital floor in Austin for 11 hours inspired three of the doc’s subjects — Sadie Hernandez, Carole Wall and Krithika Shamanna — to take action in their own communities. What emerges from their narratives, effectively woven into Davis’ epic act, is the importance of local politics, a reminder of how regional decision-making clears the way for detrimental national policies.

Shouting Down Midnight

The Bottom Line

An informative and ardent chronicle of the fight to save legal abortion.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Gretchen Stoeltje

1 hour 40 minutes

The opening montage, soundtracked by The Chicks’ (formally the Dixie Chicks) protest song, “March March,” leads into an efficient summary of the political environment preceding Davis’ filibuster. Through a sit-down interview, Davis, part of a Democratic minority in Texas state politics, explains how her time in office (2009-2015) was characterized by Republicans’ accelerated embrace of far-right, Evangelical views. Then Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott were among many of the white men in office who promised to ban abortions and protect “the unborn.” They — along with other lawmakers — would go on to pass a series of laws that stripped away the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade (a Supreme Court case that originated from Texas).

When state legislators introduced SB 5, a bill that would effectively close 37 of the 40 abortion clinics in the state at the time, in 2013, Davis and her fellow state Democrats decided to filibuster it. Unlike at the federal level, a Texas filibuster did not prevent the bill from being presented; it was, instead, an opportunity for extended debate — to help give Texans a chance to understand the impact of a proposed law on their lives.

The physical demands of the filibuster are excruciating: Only one person can be on the floor, they cannot switch places with another lawmaker, take a sip of water, lean on their desk for support or leave the floor to use the bathroom. Davis was elected to conduct the filibuster. On the day she was set to speak, she had a catheter inserted.

Shouting Down Midnight successfully dramatizes Davis’s filibuster by breaking up hours of CSPAN footage with the stories of Hernandez, Wall and Shamanna. Hernandez, a college student from Brownsville, Texas, experienced the moment through tweets by Andrea Sherman, a local journalist. She found herself inspired by Davis’ resolve and got involved with Planned Parenthood, first as an intern and later as an organizer. Her advocacy focuses on making the reproductive justice movement more inclusive of working-class, queer, non-binary and trans people. Shamanna, then a high school student, started a campaign for her school to offer free menstrual products.

Wall’s story begins with a striking letter she wrote about how an abortion saved her from having to bury a child who doctors determined early on had no chance of living if born. Davis read the letter aloud during her filibuster and, in footage from that moment, we see the senator holding back tears and momentarily choking on her words. Witnessing the impact of her story on the senator melted Wall’s shame around her decision and galvanized her. She drove to the capitol that day to join the hundreds of other demonstrators supporting Davis, and then later took a job with Planned Parenthood.

Stoeltje toys with structure in other ways. She is unafraid of section breaks, employing them frequently to atomize the unwieldy jargon around the bill and rules of the filibuster. This energizes the doc, which otherwise takes few aesthetic risks.

The power of the subjects’ narratives and the weight of abortion as a topic makes Shouting Down Midnight an absorbing watch. Stoeltje observes the challenges of organizing around such a contentious issue with the same care as the triumphs. That steadiness, ironically, gives the film’s final moments — when Davis is minutes away from a successful filibuster — a surprising emotional impact. It’s easy to relish in gains like these. What’s harder, and what Stoeltje makes clear in her documentary, is appreciating what it took to get there.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Gretchen Stoeltje
Producers: Gretchen Stoeltje, Kristi Frazier, Katy Drake Bettner
Executive producers: Richard Linklater, Michael Esposito, Suzanne Lerner, Barbara Dobkin
Cinematographer: Amy Bench
Editor: Nina Vizcarrondo
Music: Megan Carnes

1 hour 40 minutes