Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 19th, 2023
Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird (Rebecca Cammisa, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Sometimes the best kind of biographical documentaries are the ones that introduce us to unsung heroes of the past. Though they may have been celebrated (or not) in their day, time has weakened their cultural prominence. What makes director Rebecca Cammisa’s newest film, Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird, so special is the way it both revives the memory of an important historical figure and makes the very process of rediscovery an integral part of the narrative.
And who is Bill Baird? Born in 1932, he is these days a nonagenarian, but still as rambunctious as ever (if physically diminished from his activist heyday). Why should we know him? Because, in the 1960s and ‘70s, he led the fight for reproductive rights in the United States, starting with contraception and then abortion. Unless you are opposed to people having access to both, he is very much a champion.
His story alone would make for a fascinating profile, but Cammisa (Atomic Homefront) has an additional cinematic trick up her sleeve, courtesy of a 16-year-old from Arkansas. Meet Jada Portillo, who has chosen to portray Baird for the annual National History Day competition. Through her research and tireless advocacy for the same causes that have always motivated Baird, we not only learn more about him but have the great joy of seeing his legacy live on.
Beyond these modern-day scenes, coupled with a number of interviews with Baird, Cammisa fills the documentary with a vast amount of material from news coverage since the 1960s. We see Baird young, then middle-aged, then old, and every stage in between. His resolve never falters, even when he runs afoul of some women in the nascent development of second-wave feminism.
Here is a man who traveled the country challenging birth-control restrictions (something this viewer did not realize once existed so close to, and during, his own lifetime), and then abortion restrictions, leading to Supreme Court victories (e.g., Griswold v. Connecticut) that increased women’s freedom over their bodies, and yet he somehow often couldn’t get along with certain 1970s feminists. Many of them felt that men should play no part in their movement, which offended Baird. It’s a fascinating chapter of the movie, Cammisa allowing us to decide which stubborn side is more in the wrong.
Meanwhile, we cut back and forth between the history lesson and Portillo’s successful journey through the competition, first winning her school tournament, then the state one, before heading off to Washington, DC. Her enthusiasm for the project gives Baird, and us, hope that Gen Z will be an activist generation that can pick up successfully combat the rising forces of repression in our land. The film’s title comes from the way he signs off in his emails to Portillo. Seeing them together inspires.
As does pretty much every aspect of the movie (though we can wish that the archival clips were in better visual shape). It’s a sympathetic portrait that still shows its subject in full three-dimensionality, warts and all. Keep fighting the good fight. What are warts compared to liberation?
[Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird just had its world premiere at DOC NYC, where I saw it with director Rebecca Cammisa, producers Sarah Nörenberg and Walter Köhler, and subject Jada Portillo and her mother, Diana, present.]