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'Dirty Girl': A New Movie Shines a Light on an Old Problem

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In his movie "For Colored Girls," Tyler Perry gives us visions of domestic abuse that are brutal, graphic and violent. When we see them, we recoil. We know this type of abuse is unacceptable. We speak out and we legislate against it.

In promoting the film, he gave us the central message of empowerment and survival through the haunting lyrics that told us what we were to expect at the end of the movie:

"And finally I can feel without fearing, Cry without the pain, Stand up and love me, Without any shame ... "

Perry introduces us to women who experience awakenings, some only after horrific tragedy, but eventually, each in her own way, begins to come into her own. The song "I Know Who I Am" (written by Grammy Award winning Singer/Songwriter, Melissa Manchester), could well be an anthem for the fight against domestic violence and our hopes for all those engaged in their own struggle through it, but we need more.

The new movie "Dirty Girl" gives us more. What Abe Sylvia gives us in "Dirty Girl" (in addition, coincidentally, to more original music by Melissa Manchester) is a very different vision than the one shared by Tyler Perry. One that too often, we don't declare unacceptable, even if we notice what we're seeing.

The big name cast in this Indie gem pulled it off so perfectly that I felt the roller coaster of emotion, but only later came to understand some of what it was. One of the things I appreciated so much in this film was the courage of first-time writer/director, Abe Sylvia, to forego the spoon-feeding of themes and ideas to us, leaving each of us to go with it where we chose. The danger in taking that kind of risk, though, is that if we're not still thinking about the movie after we've left the theater, we may never truly get the important messages.

In "Dirty Girl," we're introduced to Peggy (Mary Steenburgen), a woman who epitomizes victims of perhaps the most common and insidious form of violence, a psychological abuse which few talk about, believe when they hear about it or even view as violence. It's an abuse for which there is no obvious evidence, bruises or broken bones, only the remnants of a tortured and broken spirit. Peggy is frozen, emotionally dead, fearful and so dedicated to 'keeping the peace' that she fails to protect her child. Her husband, Joseph (Dwight Yoakam), is not just "a difficult man" or "misunderstood." He's a homophobic, emotionally violent bully and dishes out abuse that should never be accepted as normal.

For the last 18 months, I have run the pro bono program Prison of Peace with my co-founder, Doug Noll, at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. Many of the women we've worked with are serving life sentences resulting from violent crimes against an abuser, a population of women that crosses all cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. We teach them skills they need to be peacemakers, how to address conflict productively and give them the tools to teach others to do the same. In the process they transform. They begin to feel again without fear, to understand their own emotion and the emotions of others. While many were brutally abused, there are others who, as in "Dirty Girl," had no broken bones or bruises as evidence, only deep scars, thoroughly broken spirits, living in silent shame and with no validation. In many cases, everyone has failed them ... no bruise, no victim, no support.

Far too many women without the tools to save themselves, see no way out but to slink into complacency, escape into a haze of drugs or respond to violence with violence. For some, striking back is the only way they can see to end it, and in the process, there are more victims: their children, families and friends.

In "Dirty Girl," Peggy awakens and summons her own strength when her need to protect her son becomes stronger than her fear of her husband. She doesn't do it alone, but with Sue-Ann, another mother (Milla Jovovich) who, also on a quest to protect her child, stands up to the man in her life (William H. Macy) and finds herself in the process. We are left wondering if either of these women could have done this on her own. In reality, most of us cannot. We need each other.

"Dirty Girl" and "For Colored Girls" not only show us women who come of age, but bring us stories that remind us to engage in the conversation and remind us that few can do this alone. Both of them give us music of empowerment and inspire those able to truly listen to raise their voices for all women who are victims of abuse, until they have the strength to use their own voices.