In 1916, the highest-paid director in Hollywood was a woman. Her name was Lois Weber, and every inch of her was female, from her brunette curls to her wafting skirts to her scripts, which were, for the most part, forceful dramas inspired by activists like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. That year, Sanger was arrested nine days after opening America's first family-planning clinic, and Weber released 18 films including the merciless Where Are My Children?, which warned that male anti–birth control lawmakers were forcing poor families to choose between deadly abortions or a lifetime of despair.
Women didn't have the right to vote. But Weber made sure their voices were heard — or rather, read, in stern title cards while her silent heroines sobbed.
Where Are My Children? was banned in Pennsylvania. So be it. Eager audiences broke box office records in Chicago, were turned away by the thousands in Boston, and clogged the street outside Manhattan's Globe Theatre jostling for a seat. Universal snapped a photo of the New York crush and ran ads that bragged, "Where Are My Children? Blocks Broadway Traffic." Weber hadn't made a niche women's picture. She'd made a hit.
Two months later, Weber had a bigger one: Shoes, a tragedy about a five-and-dime clerk named Eva who hawks bargains to the middle class while being too broke to replace her own hole-ridden galoshes. The close-up was a new innovation, and Weber inserted cringe-inducing shots of Eva's foot splinters and toe mud. ("Too realistic," shuddered a critic.) Finally, at the end of a wet week, the baby-faced blonde trades her virginity to a playboy named Cabaret Charlie for leather boots with a spine of buttons up the toes.
"A sweet young girl who sold herself for a pair of shoes," wailed the ad, stressing that Weber based her film on a real-life prostitute. Weber feared that newfangled variety megastores exploited their underpaid female hires. Poor women peddling gloves with a smile were seduced into thinking of their bodies as an object for sale. Weber wielded her Hollywood clout to promote social justice — and audiences loved it. Shoes was the distributor's most-booked flick of the year.
So in the year 1916, Universal's top director was a fiery feminist. The studio was proud. "Shoes is an all-woman play," bragged the ads. "The foundational episode was discovered by a woman. The story was written by a woman. A woman produced it in photo play and a woman designed the posters to advertise it."
And then Weber’s career nose-dived. The ascending flapper generation celebrated shopping and glitz — idols she refused to worship — while the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s new president Will H. Hays, who would later found the Hays Code, censored her from talking about sex. Weber made flops, lost jobs, and quit other ones in disgust, like when the studio turned her sincere take on Uncle Tom's Cabin into a blackface comedy that opened with a stork dumping a slave baby in a garbage can.
Weber had a nervous breakdown and a rumored suicide attempt. She checked into a mental home with severe depression, and when she came out, told a journalist that she wasn’t going to direct again until she found “a producer who thinks I have intelligence enough to be let alone.” After that, she didn’t get any offers for five years. When she finally died in 1939 from a bleeding ulcer, she was broke. The newspapers barely noticed. Weber was cremated, and her ashes were lost. A female director hasn't dominated the industry since.
Feminist filmmaking comes at a cost. A century later, one company wants to lower the price: Walmart.
For three years, Walmart headquarters in company town Bentonville, Arkansas, has hosted the Bentonville Film Festival, a weeklong, corporate-sponsored embrace of feminism, inclusion, and empowerment. The biggest store in the world wants to fill — and sell — Lois Weber’s shoes.
To qualify for the Bentonville Film Festival, an aspiring movie submits a scorecard grading its wokeness. Two or more of the creatives — i.e., the director, producer, writer, lead, or 50 percent of the cast, crew, or extras — must be from an underrepresented group, defined as women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, or veterans.
At this year's festival there were still films about sensitive white guys wondering what to do with their lives, but not many. Instead, Bentonville programmed movies about female veterans, female delinquents, female country singers, female thieves, female spies, female housing activists, female farming advocates, and witches. Women dealt with everything from their first periods to breast cancer. They fell in love with men with Down syndrome, and parented a child with paranoid schizophrenia. There were documentaries about women who kayaked across the Pacific, a single lesbian struggling with infertility, an all-black Baltimore girls school, a transgender firefighter, and a Kenyan millionaire who adopted 12,000 orphans.
At the awards show, one trophy went to the film with the highest diversity score: a female-directed and produced documentary about a Brazilian woman who launched a ballet school for the blind. Except for a few company executives presenting prizes, there were almost no white men onstage. That alone makes the bluntly, and cannily, named BFF unusual. What makes it unique is that Bentonville promises its three major jury winners distribution through AMC Theatres, Vudu, and, of course, Walmart. As Lois Weber knew, power only comes if people watch.
"We didn't want to have some small film festival where we could say, 'Yay, look at these independent movies that women and minorities were lucky enough to direct or create,'" says BFF cofounder Geena Davis, head of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. "We want to change the mainstream." As for who decides what's mainstream, this year's fest didn't publicize its jurors, but in 2015, the 40 deciders were mostly marketers from Walmart and Coca-Cola, who also sponsored the fest, plus eight movie producers, one film critic, and Emilio Estevez and Judge Reinhold.
At this year's BFF, a dozen of Davis's friends — among them Meg Ryan, Aisha Tyler, Terry Crews, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Jane Seymour, Marilu Henner, and director Patty Jenkins — flew to Arkansas to join panels about how Hollywood can do better, and pose for selfies with beaming corporate suits.
I couldn’t find DVDs of last year's film festival winners at the local Walmart Supercenter. Employees couldn't even find the titles listed in the store’s index of movies. It was a needed reminder not to buy everything the BFF was selling, no matter how much I wanted to. Walmart’s overt benevolence — the way the Walmart Neighborhood Market gives kids free bananas and oranges at the store entrance — took over my brain like the Borg. I repeated the words of a past volunteer who'd warned that in BFF’s first year, people were less interested in the movies than the free manicures in Sponsor Village, the most crowded corner of the fest, and that despite its girl-power message, one employee was barred from a luncheon because her shorts were too short. By the end of the week, I’d find myself begging a producer of the documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price to remind me why good people are supposed to shun giant corporations.
In 2005, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price ignited a dumpster fire's worth of toxic press about how the corporation crushed local businesses, forced minimum-wage workers to forgo health care, discriminated against female and minority employees, and scrimped on hiring security guards, allowing criminals to turn their parking lots into Grand Theft Auto. Boy, could Lois Weber have made a movie about that.
Bad buzz costs Walmart money. That year, the company defended itself against 5,000 lawsuits, many from customers and associates who'd experienced discrimination at their stores. The biggest, Wal-Mart v. Dukes, escalated into the largest class action suit in history with 1.6 million female employees taking their grievances all the way to the Supreme Court. In the South, black truck drivers accused Walmart of racist hiring practices, and the company settled for $17.5 million. A woman charged that she was fired for being transgender. To protect itself from a lifetime of legal trouble, the company needed to do more than polish its public image. It needed to retrain its staff and rebuild its moral compass.
Walmart created a war room — its term, not mine — staffed with image consultants, some of whom had advised presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They crafted the company's next moves like a political campaign.
By 2011, Walmart was asking its senior directors to invest $20 billion in products from women-owned businesses. They wound up purchasing $22 billion. Yet Louis Greth, the senior director of movies, said he was stuck. Hollywood just wasn't producing any female-made films for him to buy. So he brainstormed the Bentonville Film Festival, and reached out to producer and eventual cofounder Trevor Drinkwater, who reached out to Davis. Which means, ironically, the Bentonville Film Festival was triggered by a documentary Walmart wanted to squash.
The festival, now in its third year, has made major strides since its 2015 launch. Attendance doubled from 35,000 to 73,000. Sure, only a fraction of attendees came to see the films, but the 91-seat mobile theaters couldn't have fit them in anyway. The films were mostly sold out and the audiences were passionate. Over a bizarre sponsored brunch of Entenmann's doughnuts, Takis, and honey-mustard crickets, a short-film maker beamed that in Bentonville, new fans stopped her on the street. Q&As were enthusiastic and sincere. After my favorite movie of the festival, Joyce Wong's Wexford Plaza, a tricky she-said/he-said drama about a drunk 19-year-old girl who misinterprets her crush's intentions, a local woman's hand shot up. "I don't know what I think about the film," she announced, "but it made me feel something."
Opening night was at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the crown jewel of northwest Arkansas, or honestly, any city for 500 miles hungry for a Lichtenstein, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Rockwell, or Warhol. The Warhol, naturally, is a 6-foot-tall painting of a Coke bottle. As Warhol once explained, "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. The president drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and, just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too."
But in the Crystal Bridges hall that night, the rich sipped a vodka-and-lemon drink called the Beena — a mash-up of Bentonville and Geena — and ignored the bowls of bulk-bought pretzels and Chex Mix. William H. Macy, Judy Greer, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Miss America mingled. Onstage, Jewel sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a capella.
Most festival attendees worked for, or married someone who worked for, either Walmart or a corporation — Clorox or Campbell’s Soup, for example — that sells millions and billions of dollars in product to Walmart. They’d moved to Arkansas under duress. They're used to larger cities, to Manhattan and Miami and arts and culture and organic kale. And they're rich enough to will their wants into existence, the way Walmart founder Sam Walton's daughter, Alice, the second wealthiest woman in the world, had built Crystal Bridges. A local boutique unironically sells t-shirts that swagger, "New York — Los Angeles – Bentonville."
"I call Bentonville the island of Lost," said a Walmart wife in sequins. "People get dragged here kicking and screaming and then they leave kicking and screaming." The town is gorgeous and clean and green. In the past five years, housing prices have doubled. There are six upscale bars, and everyone knows each other. "It's like Kevin Bacon but with Sam Walton," she joked. One day, she said, she wants to write a tell-all book and have the Waltons pay her not to publish it. For now, she traffics in eggs, filling her fridge with cartons she buys from a farm on the down-low and sneaks to other moms who don't like superstore scrambles.
Her friends glided by in expensive gowns. I was in a vintage cotton dress, and two other oddballs made a beeline toward me. "You must be a filmmaker too, right?" No, but the actual ones were easy to spot. They looked like they'd landed in Oz.
Eventually, everyone decamped for the opening night film, 3 Generations, in which Elle Fanning plays a transgender teenager who transitions from Ramona to Ray while suffering his mother Naomi Watts's nerves and his grandmother Susan Sarandon's questions about why he can't just be a lesbian. The film meant well, but could have used more nerve.
At the after-party, Jewel took the stage again, this time with her guitar. She told a room of merchants that she used to shoplift. As a homeless teen, she started with carrots ("a gateway food") and escalated to a sundress. When she caught a glimpse of herself, dirty and desperate, in the dressing room mirror, she put it back. "I realized I'd become a statistic," she said. By the time she was 21, she'd gone platinum. Now she was in Bentonville to promote her self-help website, Never Broken, and, as she’d mention later during the panel "In Control of Her Own Destiny,” gauge interest in a kids' TV series about mindfulness.
Between songs, Jewel flattered the Walmart employees ("How do you handle transportation? What does that mean?") and the company itself ("Walmart speaks with humility about doing better") while chipping away at conservative capitalism. She talked about the time her call-center boss fired her for refusing a date, about her immigrant grandparents, about when she nearly died for lack of health insurance. Her acoustic set was totally punk rock. Jewel talked more than she played, and when loudmouths talked over her, she'd stop strumming until they shrank into silence. Pop's biggest hippie had cowed the corporate world into buying her every word.
Downtown Bentonville is the Mount Olympus of commercialism, complete with a temple to its god, Sam Walton. In 1950, he built his first store, Walton's 5&10, on Bentonville's town square. He hired three shopgirls and set out to offer the lowest prices in town. To earn customer loyalty, he'd even underbid himself, selling a shipment of Tide detergent at a loss.
By the time Walton died in 1992, three weeks after George H.W. Bush draped him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he'd built an empire. Walmart was the No. 1 retailer in the United States. Today, Walmart is the No. 1 retailer in the world. And Walton's 5&10 is The Walmart Museum.
On my first morning in town, I asked the Waffle House counterman if he'd ever visited the museum. Chris said he hadn't. He'd only moved to boomtown Bentonville a year ago looking for work.
"That's like if you went to Georgia and Waffle House had a museum," said Chris.
"It does," interrupted his manager.
"In 10 years everything will have a museum!" laughed Chris. "I'll have a museum in my garage."
"You think Waffle House isn't worth a museum?" said his boss. "We are part of the culture. Americana. We got fans."
Walmart has definitely got fans. The Walmart Museum gift shop sells blue-and-yellow Walmart-loving playing cards, hats, bracelets, socks, spoons, shot glasses, and literally a hundred styles of hipster lapel pins. You can buy tiny toy shopping carts, Pez despensers shaped like Walmart's 18-wheelers, Lego-style models of Walmart stores and Sam Walton's red Ford pickup, child's tank tops that say "Future Associate," and retractable pens that click through company chants: "Now. New. Always." "Save people money so they can live better." "Go for it."
If I'm honest, Walmart is part of my own brand. When I got my driver’s license it was one of my first destinations. I bought temporary pink hair dye and stacks of cheap tees to silkscreen into riot grrl shirts. My college in Norman, Oklahoma, had three — three! — Walmarts in a 20-minute radius. Unlike everything else in town they were open 24 hours, and they became a touchstone of our lives. One night, I drove to Walmart after finishing my 2 a.m. library shift to get ingredients to make an ice cream cake for my roommate's birthday party at the park. The next morning was September 11. I can't think of that day without picturing Walmart sherbet melting in the sun.
The Walmart Museum is convinced that Walmart is the biggest dot on the timeline of America. One sign reads, "The turbulent sixties are famous for rock-and-roll, civil unrest, and revolutionary ideas. It's also a time when retailers see the enormous potential of large, self-service discount stores."
Sam Walton's high school yearbook hangs there. He was in Latin, basketball, and the Magic Club. His wife of 49 years, Helen, was a pingpong whiz and a fencer. Her wedding dress is mounted near a picture of preteen Sam, then an Eagle Scout, next to a boy he'd just saved from drowning.
Sam's actual Ford truck is there, of course, proof of his modesty. "What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in?" he once said. "A Rolls-Royce?" There's a framed to-do list from 1990 (“#1 Russia – who? How?”), a bar-code generator where you can print a stick-on name tag in skinny black lines, a home video of Sam dancing the hula, and an oil portrait of his black workman's boots, which the museum describes as "emulative of van Gogh's study of Shoes, which were symbolic of the hard yet picaresque life of the laborer."
My favorite exhibit was a possessed hand-mixer, evidence that Walmart accepts every return. The largest is a life-size terrarium of Walton's office. Visitors can't enter the glass box, so a touchscreen illuminates his Mike Ditka football and a microphone he used to talk to all of his employees at once, the voice of the all-mighty beaming into a thousand superstores.
I wandered back into the gift shop, where a visitor with an international accent was asking the clerk a sensitive question: "Is everyone here a Republican?"
The employee had clearly parried this before. "Well, I don't talk politics, but my wife — whew!" He threw his hands in the air and mimed stomping away. Then he pivoted with a grin and thrust his hands into a bucket of saltwater taffy. "Lemme give you all some candy!"
I took a seat at the adjoining Spark Café, the museum's retro-kitsch ice cream parlor. The stools were yellow leather and the tabletop was blue — Walmart colors — and the soda jerks were all shiny, smiling teenagers from an Archie comic. It was a shrine to 1957, the year before civil rights protesters started staging sit-ins at soda fountains. An old Three Stooges cartoon whoop-whooped on the TV, across from a sign announcing that Sam Walton's favorite flavor was butter pecan. Instead, I ordered a scoop of Spark, Walmart's exclusive yellow-and-blue swirled ice cream named for the sunbeam on their logo, and opened an issue of Walmart World to read about a checkout associate who emergency delivered a customer's baby.
"What flavor is Spark?" I asked a kid behind the counter. "French vanilla." Oh. Boring. I heard him answer the same question three more times, and each time I rolled my eyes at the parlor's insistence on being blandly inoffensive.
I left to get a burger at the diner next door. Their menu served "freedom fries" — a relic of Fox News' culture attack against France for questioning the Iraq War. That was 15 years ago.
"We've got freedom toast, freedom fries, freedom dip," listed the waitress. Suddenly, French vanilla sounded brave.
Sixty-three percent of Benton County voted for Donald Trump, slightly more than the overall Arkansas tally. On the radio, I listened to a Christian financial adviser nudge his listeners to invest in Israel, urging, "Nothing's more important than being biblically responsible." The week I was in town there was a grand opening for a coffee shop called Guns & Grounds, which sells rifles, ammo, and fresh-brewed cups of Longshot Lattes and Caliber Cappuccinos.
But Bentonville allows shelf space for dissent. That same week, AHCA protesters held up cardboard tombstones at a "die-in" on the town square, a tidy park just 58 paces from end to end. Bentonville hadn't planned an event for the Women's March. But on January 21, ladies showed up at the square anyway — if anyone was meeting up, it would probably happen there — and were delighted to see 500 other pink knit hats.
"I think Hollywood thinks women don't gather," said Geena Davis. "We did gather in January."
No speaker dared say the word "Trump" in public. The closest a Walmart executive got was when he introduced Univision's Nely Galán, a powerhouse Cuban TV executive and motivational speaker whose mantra is, "Don't buy shoes, buy buildings." He applauded Galan's work ethic, and added, "She was on Celebrity Apprentice. We could have a full hour conversation about that — preferably after happy hour." All week, the only "MAGA" I saw was on a lady's pink t-shirt touting Krav Maga.
Bentonville isn't gripped by a culture clash. It's politely ignoring it. Still, I never got over the disconnect of driving past a day care named Trucks and Tiaras: A Learning Center to watch a panel during which Davis specified that her use of "gender" is intersectional. This schism wasn't just in the same town — it was on the same street.
"I'm sure it was 63 percent Republican before it was Trump when we started it, even though Obama was in office," says Davis, using the T-word with me offstage. "We've never felt any resistance." After people watched Davis’s President Mackenzie Allen run the Oval Office on the show Commander in Chief, they were 68 percent more likely to vote for a female POTUS. Does anyone ask the real-life Davis to run? "All the time!" she says with a laugh. "And I say, 'I was the fake president!'" Instead, she’s campaigning for Hollywood to write more fictional female leaders. Maybe that’s one way to help a female president win.
Across the town's square at the 21C Museum, a Mattel exhibit reminded BFF attendees that Barbie has run for president six times since 1992 — and, by inference, lost every time. Barbie was an astronaut 20 years before she was a CEO, and even then her corporate clout was too soon, at least according to the Onion article, "CEO Barbie Criticized For Promoting Unrealistic Career Images."
"More women want to become scientists because they see it on TV," says Drinkwater. "When you look at the entire ecosystem, media inspires the workforce of the future. Companies need a diverse workforce. Companies are spending money paying for this content. It's all connected."
It should be a no-brainer no matter who's president. But in 2017, supporting young girls feels like a statement.
"We were a little concerned, candidly, that the panels would become very political in nature and the conversation turn negative," admits Drinkwater. In 2016, he and the Geena Davis Institute met with the White House three times. He'd like to go to the White House again, and it's not impossible. His former partner at ARC Entertainment was Steve Bannon. "We haven't worked really closely together for four or five years," says Drinkwater, though they email and text. "But I have talked to him about the need for the administration to publicly come out and support diversity and inclusion. And he's not pushing back on that. So we'll see. I'm working on it.
"It's not about picketing and holding up the sign and telling people that they're doing bad things," continues Drinkwater. "It's more about celebrating progress and trying to get these companies to feel comfortable sticking their neck out a little bit." No one here wants to be Pepsi, which got dragged when its Kendall Jenner protest-themed ad fizzled. I faux-casually ask a Coke exec what she thought of Pepsi's commercial. "We had a big meeting about that," she sighed. She didn't want to say much else.
Bentonville is eerily soothing, as if a vintage Norman Rockwell Coca-Cola ad became a 3-D town — and if you don’t leave soon, you’ll never escape. On farmers market day at the square, there wasn't one stand of little girls selling lemonade — there were four. Joked Terry Crews at the awards show, "I'm feeling nostalgic here. I drove by the square and it was like the set of White Chicks." One night, I stopped a drunk man in a white button-down shirt. He was swaying so much on his feet that I figured he'd be honest. Were there any stray dogs in Bentonville? "No." Homeless people? "No."
His tone wasn't proud or defiant. It was factual, like I’d asked if he knew any radioactive clowns. I walked on to my car, which I'd parked in a town lot next to a 2-foot-tall boulder. On impulse, I kicked the rock with my toe. It was hollow plastic, placed there to cover up a pipe. I kicked the next one. Same.
The ruse reminded me of a conversation I'd had with a Bentonville high schooler. The town has an 11:30 p.m. curfew, which rich teens ignore. Parents are always out of town anyway, so they throw the kind of house parties I thought only existed in movies. I asked what kids here did to get in trouble. "Speed," he said. I thought he was joking. Maybe not.
My brain was starting to glitch. No one seemed to be speaking straight and every belief was for sale, like the $2,750 giant plastic meerkat a store hawked as "a playful reminder of the importance of sustainability and environmental conservation.”
At the Chobani free-sample booth, if I looked north, I could see Hank Willis Thomas’s “Raise Up,” his sculpture of young black miners being strip-searched in an echo of generations of young, black men forced to prove their innocence. If I looked south, I could see the town square’s only statue, a 20-foot-tall monument to Rebel lieutenant James Henderson Berry. The word "CONFEDERATE" screamed out in all-caps from every side of the base. The national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan is in northwest Arkansas, an hour-and-a-half drive away.
I can't imagine that's the Bentonville that Walmart wants to represent. Maybe it’d point to the bronze plaque around the corner honoring Arthur "Rabbit" Dickerson, a black shoeshine man who "on this spot provided generations with lively discussions and exceptional customer service." But even the best boot-polisher in town is several hundred steps below CEO.
Walmart wants to do better. It has to. Even in the age of Trump, inclusivity sells.
"Who shops at Walmart?" says Davis. "Everybody! So they're leaving out a huge part of the population if they don't show their support and their compassion."
In that same park under Berry's shadow, I met a man whose brother travels the country asking black communities how Walmart can help them. It invites its 2.3 million employees to join company advocacy groups like the African American Resource Group, Women's Resource Council, Associates for Disability Awareness and Education, Asian Pacific Associates Network, Hispanic Latino Associate Resource Group, LGBT and Straight Ally Resource Group, and Tribal Voices.
In 2011, the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index, a ranking of corporate support of LGBTQ employees, gave Walmart a 40 out of 100. In response, Walmart strengthened protections for its gay associates and gave insurance coverage to spouses and transgender employees, plus a $7.5 million settlement for gay workers who had to cover their partner's health costs. This year, Walmart earned a perfect score.
After the Charleston church shooting, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon pulled all merchandise with the Confederate flag from stores. Later that summer he halted sales of semiautomatic guns. And when the Arkansas Senate passed H.B. 1228, a religious-freedom law designed to discriminate against gay Americans, McMillon asked Governor Asa Hutchinson to veto the bill. He did.
Two years later, Brooke Guinan, the FDNY's first openly transgender firefighter, took the stage after her documentary Woman on Fire won this year's audience award — the audience award. "I stand here a transgender woman," she declared in an engine-red minidress. At the Oscars, it'd be a memorable moment. In Bentonville, it felt like a landmark victory.
LGBTQ shoppers are projected to spend $1 trillion by the end of 2017. Black Americans spend $1.2 trillion a year. Hispanics, $1.3 trillion. Women, who tend to do the household shopping, control a staggering 85 percent of all consumer purchases, dwarfing the buying power of men.
Walmart wants that cash. Embracing activism to get it is cynical. Still, the majority of Americans want better health care, stronger gun control laws, equal rights, and a higher minimum wage. Walmart claims to offer what the government won't. It needs the support of all shoppers and all voters, not just a gerrymandered 26 percent. Depressing as it sounds in a democracy, maybe dollars can do what ballots can't.
It wasn't idealists who integrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Prize banquet in 1964 Georgia. It was Coca-Cola, which threatened to leave Atlanta if white businessmen didn't buy tickets. "It's embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner," warned Coke president J. Paul Austin. "We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all have to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company." The dinner sold out.
If Coke can combat segregation, no wonder the BFF believes it can make Hollywood hire more voices. Its strategy isn't just to invite studios, all of whom came. It's to energize its sponsors — Mars, Slimfast, Mattel, Chobani, Clorox, Coty, L'Oréal, Hard Candy, Duracell, Campbell's Soup, Little Debbie — to think bigger than handing out samples underneath cursive quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt. BFF wants corporations to think wisely about how they spend their money during the other 51 weeks of the year. If they’re serious about supporting social progress, their ad dollars can incentivize networks to add more diversity.
If companies don’t demand real change, Walmart’s good intentions are just the discount version of what Bitch Media's Andi Zeisler hashtagged #MarketplaceFeminism, a mall of $800 gold bracelets that spell "empower" and $710 tees touting, "We should all be feminists." We should all have such disposable income. But for those who don't, Bentonville's Walmart Supercenter offers shoppers a chance to save the world with the right lipstick ("Show your support for girls' education") or a LUNA Bar ("an invitation to make your own breakthroughs happen, every day") or shirts that literally announce, "Girls will save the world."
Ironic, because Geena Davis started her career in a department store window. She was a human mannequin. "I have the rare talent to be motionless for a long time," she says. Going from silent beauty to a voice for equality is a lovely career turn. I arrived at the festival wondering if Walmart was poaching Davis’s star power to shine its own brand, and left thinking she’d masterminded how to promote the good work of her institute using Walmart’s cash. After all, she’s both an Oscar winner and a member of Mensa.
She and Lois Weber would have hit it off. In an alternate reality, Davis could have starred in Shoes. In this timeline, the festival rallied behind the 25th anniversary of Penny Marshall’s hit A League of Their Own, the girl-stuffed sports comedy about the ladies' league that kept Americans cheering while the menfolk fought World War II. To celebrate, League stars Davis, Lori "Kit Keller" Petty, Tracy "Betty Spaghetti" Reiner, and Megan "Marla Hooch" Cavanagh headed up a celebrity softball match.
Game day was hot and the stadium wouldn't sell beer until the second inning, even though most of the crowd had been there for three hours trying to break the Guinness record for World's Largest Superhero Gathering. Attendees got a free costume in the parking lot, donated, presumably, by Walmart. There were velveteen Supergirls, shiny Wonder Women, black pleather Batmen, old-school gray-and-blue Batmen, and ab-inflated Iron Men and Spider-Men and Deadpools and Green Lanterns. More women showed up than men, so when the large female sizes ran out, grandmothers swaggered around in Superman's six-pack. Alas, the squad was about a thousand people short, not that the announcer let on. He rebranded it, "The single greatest gathering of superheroes in northwest Arkansas history!" And the game began.
Several octogenarian original Rockford Peaches came out to play. "Our manager didn't scratch his balls," insisted former Peach Sue Parsons, rolling her eyes at Tom Hanks's crotch-itching, tobacco-spitting coach. But if A League of Their Own got that wrong, it got a lot of other stuff right — including the semi-sour truth that female athletes, and the actresses who play them, are marketed like shoes. Promoters pitched Davis's Dottie Hinson as a babe who "plays like Gehrig and looks like Garbo." Selling sex sucks. But if it works, is it worth it?
It is to the women in the film, who agree to slide into home base in short skirts. The money men, however, are still on the fence, and plan to shutter the league when the men come home. "I sold your product when there was no product," argues David Strathairn to the league's rich male owner. "This is a product!"
The real-life Rockford Peaches kept hitting curveballs for another decade. And A League of Their Own is still the top-grossing baseball flick of all time — it made more than Bull Durham and Major League combined. In the two and a half decades since, a new generation has risen up after Marshall to steadily set new box office records for a female-helmed opening weekend: Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, $69.6 million), Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, $94.4 million) and now Patty Jenkins’s $103.1 million hit Wonder Woman. Female stories sell tickets. Not every female-powered film is a guaranteed home run. But more deserve to take a swing.
That includes aspiring young filmmaker Alicia, who drove down to the Bentonville Film Festival from Joplin, Missouri, and camped outside the city limits with her mom and her 10-year-old Handycam, Charlie. "Anything with the word 'create' in it, you know I'm there!" she said, beaming. She'd picked up Weber's lens. We ran into each other all week, her camera ready to film whatever caught her eye.
More than anyone, Alicia cut through my cynicism. The Bentonville Film Festival is passionate, contradictory, and crazy-making, an unwieldy event fated to go off-brand. It's easy to ridicule — honestly, your soul depends on being able to do it. Yet I couldn't stop thinking of Alicia's advice to other young, female, would-be directors, which doubles as a defense of the festival itself.
"A lot of people think of all the reasons why they can't," said Alicia. "But all you need is one reason why you can."