Like many women in media—particularly women of color—Keli Goff wanted to be like Oprah. But not for the fame or the Oprah-size paychecks.
“I always admired the fact that, for her, being on camera was really a starting point,” Goff said, praising the media’s mogul’s ability to transform that platform into other avenues to tell stories.
Oprah “[meets] people where they are,” she observed; and that’s what she’s hoping her latest work does.
Goff, a screenwriter, playwright and journalist, recently produced her first film, the timely Reversing Roe, which debuts on Netflix on Sept. 13. Originally, Goff had envisioned the documentary as an Eyes on the Prize—the revered documentary series on the Civil Rights movement—for reproductive rights.
“I was interested in sort of doing a deep dive into the first 100 years of Planned Parenthood,” Goff told The Root. “Then I realized there hadn’t actually been a film or series of films that told the story of the reproductive justice movement in America.”
Over several years, the idea evolved—the result is a 90-minute documentary that focuses on the judicial and political battles around reproductive rights that began shortly before Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that codified a woman’s right to choose whether or not to abort a pregnancy.
As The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its review, the Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg-directed documentary takes a cerebral approach to its subject, choosing to gather a variety of voices and perspectives to illuminate how we arrived at the current moment, where the right to an abortion is among the most divisive and polarizing issues in America.
Goff, a former writer for The Root, columnist for The Daily Beast, and guest commentator on many a cable news show, had written and spoken about reproductive rights before, but felt she wasn’t getting to the larger story.
“There were conversations that needed to be had that were not being had. And there were stories that weren’t being fully told,” she said.
“I have friends who are pro-choice, I have plenty of friends who are pro-life. And you know even within my own family I would say people are divided on the issue,” Goff said. “I think there’s more common ground than we realize. And that was, for me, the starting point.”
It couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. The anxiety over a conservative Supreme Court potentially overturning Roe v. Wade has underpinned the chaotic confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second SCOTUS nominee in as many years. Whether a woman has a legal right to an abortion is the kind of issue that has driven people to the streets to protest, and to voting booths.
But it hasn’t always been this way, Goff reminds me.
“This issue used to not be politicized,” she said. “It really used to be that this conversation was one that took place between a woman, her family and her doctor.”
The documentary leans into the nuances of the issue, and unpacks stories that complicate our understanding of reproductive rights. Goff offers as one example the California Therapeutic Abortion law, signed in 1967 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. The law legalized abortion if a hospital committee found the pregnancy could endanger a woman’s physical or mental health, or if a local district attorney or court found probable cause that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. It was one of the country’s earliest laws granting women the right to terminate a pregnancy, signed by a politician who would later promote a staunch anti-abortion stance.
Focusing in on the history is important because it re-centers the people who are deeply invested in the fight over reproductive fights. As Goff learned, those people aren’t always the loudest voices.
“I have also learned there are people who don’t really care about reproductive policy, but simply use it as yet another wedge issue to divide Americans and empower themselves politically,” she said. “As a woman, I really resent that.”
As the film’s producer, Goff made it a priority to center women of color, who are often erased in discussions of reproductive rights.
“I probably sounded like a broken record by repeatedly saying ‘Women of color are extremely important to this conversation,” she said. “[But] we need to make sure women of color are represented on screen in this story. You can never have too many women of color in a story like this and in a conversation like this, because we’ve been so crucial to it since the beginning of activism work in this country.”
She lists Faye Wattleton, the first and only black woman to head Planned Parenthood, as an example. Under Wattleton’s guidance from 1978 to 1992 (she’s also the youngest president the organization has ever had), Planned Parenthood became a more politically active organization and vastly expanded its healthcare services.
But there’s also the very real impact reproductive rights have had on Goff’s family, and her path.
“Reproductive rights really are the linchpin, in terms of the pathway out of poverty for my family,” Goff said.
“One of my grandmothers was one of 14 [children]. The other was one of eight,” she said. “The fact that they were able to control their family size and have smaller families really gave my parents an opportunity to pursue the American dream.”
Goff hopes the documentary can serve as a bridge for people who see themselves as being on opposing sides of a deeply divided conversation. She also sees the documentary format as a way to address stories she had come across during her time as a reporter and commentator with greater context and care.
In fact, as both a creator and consumer of media, Goff believes that the news hasn’t necessarily done a great job in covering polarizing issues like reproductive rights.
Her frustration helped push Goff toward other forms of storytelling; following Oprah’s path, Goff wanted to use her on-air platform as a way to segue into other creative formats. She started first as a playwright, winning a prestigious fellowship in 2014 from 2014 the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. After, she joined the writer’s room at Being Mary Jane, winning a 2016 NAACP Image award alongside Mara Brock Akil and Jameal Turner for Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series.
Currently, she writes for the CW superhero series, Black Lightning, though she still manages to find time to devote to side projects on the weekends. Goff’s journalism background continues to her inform her work, though.
“The more people whose stories you can pull from as a reference point—it’s always great if you’re a screenwriter,” she said. Both an interview she once did with a white supremacist and stats she once crammed before making a cable news appearance have made it into the show’s plots.
That isn’t to say the road has been smooth for Goff. In bringing Reversing Roe to fruition, Goff noticed how ready people were to “discount the stories of women.” For this reason, she’s quick to point out the women and people of color who helped her along the way, people like Brock Akil, who gave her her first screenwriting job, Salim Akil, Black Lightning’s showrunner, and Eva Longoria, who executive produced the Roe documentary.
“There were women in positions of power...who saw the value of this story and they made it possible for this film to be completed on Netflix,” Goff said. “When people are having these conversations about the importance of diversity, for me, it’s not a philosophical conversation.”
In addition to the film streaming on Netflix beginning Sept. 13, the film will have a one-week theatrical run starting Sept. 13 in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall theater.