There’s a moment in the new PBS documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide that won’t easily be forgotten. During a visit to Somaliland, in eastern Africa, Diane Lane is sitting on a floral sofa watching a video of a young girl undergoing the ritual procedure of female genital mutilation (FGM). The camera stays on Lane’s face, sparing viewers details of the surgery, which is often performed without anesthesia, but the actress’s horrified reaction tells us enough.
The video, which was filmed in 1976 to document the barbarism of the procedure, was shot without sound. Nonetheless, Lane says now, “I can still hear [that girl] screaming. The video was taken around the time I was nine years old, the age of the child on the table. I thought, Wow, that could be me. The chance of where you’re born, who you’re born to, your gender and color—it’s so bizarre to think your fate is determined by such things.”
In the documentary, Lane, 47, and five other actresses—Eva Mendes, America Ferrera, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and Gabrielle Union—each travel to a different country in Asia or Africa to draw attention to cultures in which egregious mistreatment of women and girls is endemic. The film, which airs in two parts, on October 1 and 2, is based on the best seller by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a former journalist at the paper who now works in finance. “My role at the minimum was to be a witness and an ambassador,” says Lane. “I’m guilty of the sheltered, privileged life of an American woman. I was grateful to have the scales cleansed from my eyes about the plight of women in the majority of the world.”
She read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (the title alludes to a Mao Zedong maxim, “Women hold up half the sky”) at the suggestion of her friend Maria Bello and leapt at the chance to join the project. “I felt dared, and I loved the book,” Lane says. “I’m out of my twenties, I’ve been around a little, I thought, What am I going to care about when I’m 80? If I can contribute to something that stirs my heart, then it’s all for something..."
Appearing in a documentary is a departure for the actress, who has some 50 TV and feature movies to her credit, but she has long experience serving as the viewer’s chaperone into the knotty terrain of others’ lives. From her first film, opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in 1979’s A Little Romance, through a series of roles in her teens, including a trio directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club), and into the more adult subject matter of A Walk on the Moon and Unfaithful, Lane has portrayed an assortment of complicated girls, wives and mothers grappling with the tangled messiness of life.
In Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon, she showed us why a woman who loves her husband (Liev Schrei-ber) would nonetheless risk a sexual adventure with an itinerant salesman (Viggo Mortensen). “If someone else had played that part, it would have been just a sappy movie,” says Mortensen. “Diane was really the engine of that story—and it was a difficult part to play, to make sympathetic. She may be the least vain actress I’ve ever seen.”
When director Adrian Lyne watched her performance, he was “just blown away,” he says, and subsequently cast her in Unfaithful. This time she was stepping out on Richard Gere for carnal afternoons with a rare-book dealer played by Olivier Martinez. Lane earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her riveting portrayal of a woman at once ashamed and enraptured—and finally devastated—by her unlikely liaison. “She’s a very courageous actor, kind of fearless,” says Lyne. “She’s prepared to examine what she’s doing and doesn’t have any ego about it.”