‘Belly of the Beast’ Review: Fighting for Incarcerated Women


When Kelli Dillon was 24 years old, a doctor at the California facility where she was incarcerated sterilized her without consent. That experience, and the way it galvanized Dillon to bring attention to this human rights violation, anchors Erika Cohn’s timely and bracing new documentary “Belly of the Beast.”

To tell the story of the unconscionable treatment faced by women (a majority of them Black and Latino) in California’s correctional facilities, Cohn (“The Judge”) impressively weaves Dillon’s harrowing narrative with those of Cynthia Chandler, a founder of the prison abolition organization Justice Now, and Corey G. Johnson, a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Their accounts make up the film’s first half, which investigates modern-day coercive sterilization in California and the history of eugenics in the United States.

In the film’s second half, Cohn focuses on the multipronged fight for justice, following Chandler and Dillon as they try to get an anti-sterilization bill passed and reparations for those who have already been sterilized.

“Belly of the Beast” does not reach for happy endings and is most absorbing in its thesis, which makes the stakes of this battle against human rights violations loud and clear. Whistleblower testimonies, expert commentary and powerful archival footage are well-paced throughout the film and reveal a darker truth when it comes to advocating for the rights of incarcerated people: Those on the frontline are not only fighting bad actors who abuse their power, they are also battling a public that at best does not care and at worst condones it.

Belly of the Beast
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. Watch in theaters or through virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.



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