Belly of the Beast

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Belly of the Beast Movie Poster Image
Mature themes, strong language in prison eugenics docu.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 82 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Shows power of perseverance and teamwork to fight for rights of a voiceless population.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A racially and economically diverse group of female attorneys, activists, lawmakers, and formerly incarcerated people use excellent communication and demonstrate courage, compassion, tireless work to stop illegal eugenics practices against minority female inmates across California prison system. Doctors shown to be behind the practices are White men. A Black male journalist and many White male California lawmakers of both political parties act with compassion.


Recollections of domestic violence. Disturbing stories about authority figures performing unwanted surgeries on women without their knowledge. Talk of a doctor performing unnecessary gynecological procedures for the purposes of "titillation." 


A prison doctor says he believes that female inmates seek medical care in hopes of being touched by a man. See "Violence" for more information about assault.


Strong language includes "ass," "s--t," and more than one use of "f--k." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief mention of kids on the street selling drugs during the 1980s. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Belly of the Beast is a compassionate documentary about the California prison system's horrific history of sterilizing female inmates without their consent. It centers on two women. Kelli Dillon is a Black woman who served 15 years in prison for killing her serially abusive husband; the violence she suffered at his hands isn't explicitly detailed, but there's a larger conversation about domestic violence. Cynthia Chandler is a White attorney who helps those who have less power than she does: She fights for and with Dillon to change the system. Many other people are part of the solution, including a male reporter and Justice Now, a small organization of women and incarcerated people who work on creating legal action to stop injustice. While the film is about reproductive rights, there's no connection to sexual activity except for a news piece in which a prison doctor says he believes that female inmates seek medical care in hopes of being touched by a man. There are also comments from prison medical authorities and social media posts by the public that express a sweeping belief that incarcerated people shouldn't be allowed to reproduce. Profanity ("s--t," "f--k") is used a couple of times to demonstrate frustration, and there's mention of kids selling drugs in the 1980s.

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What's the story?

BELLY OF THE BEAST follows Kelli Dillon, a woman who was incarcerated in the Central California Women's Prison for 15 years for killing her abusive husband in self-defense. After her release, Dillon learned that she'd been sterilized without her knowledge, and she reached out to attorney Cynthia Chandler for help. As the two women pursue legal action against the prison doctor's unlawful action, they learn that Dillon was just one of thousands who were victims of a horrific, unauthorized eugenics program against female inmates.

Is it any good?

As this compassionate documentary makes clear, being shocked and horrified by government actions is, sadly, nothing new these days. But the fact that human rights violations of this scale were occurring until only recently in prisons in California -- considered the United States' most progressive state -- may send some viewers reeling. Eugenics, the practice of preventing people who are considered "inferior" from reproducing in order to create a "stronger" population, has been going on for more than a century: Belly of the Beast reveals that Nazi Germany used California's model of sterilization as part of their program to build a "superior race." Director Erika Cohn makes it very clear that this atrocity still exists and that some people are still happy to support it.

The outrage sparked by all of the above is balanced with inspiration. The organization highlighted here, Justice Now -- a small, determined group of women from all walks of life who create change through purpose and dedication -- is an amazing example of what's possible. Cohn encourages compassion and understanding by making it very clear what it means to a woman to be stripped of her right to create a family. And then she allows the "other side" their voice. In what may be the most powerful part of the film, the medical personnel who are conducting the illegal hysterectomies and tubal ligations express their views of why it's better to sterilize criminals. (Social media posts are also used to show supporting public opinion.) Hearing their cruel comments after the movie has so clearly explained the tragic plight of the victims underlines the speakers' ignorance -- and, for some viewers, may expose their own. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the concept and history of eugenics. What does it mean? Why did some people once think it was a good idea? How did it contribute to the Holocaust and other horrific crimes?

  • Some seem to support sterilizations as a "cost saving" measure. What does Belly of the Beast show to be the real cost of this practice? Why are reproductive rights a human right? 

  • Do you consider Cynthia Chandler a role model? How do we benefit when we help others? What does it mean to have a purpose? How is compassion an important character strength?

  • How are teamwork, courage, and perseverance shown in the film? Who acts with integrity? Who demonstrates gratitude? Why are these important life skills?

  • How is communication used to identify a problem, realize the problem is widespread, garner support, and fix the problem? Is a documentary a further example of using communication to do all four of those things? How is making a documentary a form of journalism, service, and activism?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

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