Old Hollywood films aren't necessarily well known for their alignment with well, any type of feminism. However, there are some gems hidden in the Turner Classic Movies catalogue, and one of them is Katharine Hepburn's The African Queen.
Kate Hepburn As Rosie
She was pretty ahead of the times in regard to both the characters she played and in her personal life, so it's not necessarily surprising that she played strong female leads like Rosie in The African Queen, a woman who starts the movie as a missionary alongside her more zealous brother in German East Africa during the time period just prior to World War I, but ends up in a much more precarious situation where she realizes what she's truly capable of.
Quick synopsis - her character helps to turn the small steamer named The African Queen and piloted by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) into a torpedo boat by crafting explosives and building a detonator with just the materials at hand in a remote village, developing a plan that eventually works (albeit in a slightly unexpected fashion) and saves the day.
Navigating Through Rapids, Storms, And A Narrow Escape
But not without some serious drama first! The boat had to be navigated through three sets of difficult rapids and past a German fort towards the torpedo's intended target, a gunboat that stands between them and safety in British controlled Kenya. However, they encounter storms, crocodiles, leeches, a serious lack of potable water, and they nearly drown before being captured by the Germans when their torpedoes are foiled again by terrible weather conditions.
The couple are captured and sentenced to be executed as spies - but not before they strike up a relationship and are married just prior to their narrow escape as the German boat hits the explosives on The African Queen and sinks (we hope that's not a spoiler, but the movie was released in 1951, so we think we're past that point) as Charlie and Rosie literally swim off into the sunset.
Equal Work, Equal Risk, Equal Billing
Her character Rosie Sayer shared duties with Humphrey Bogart's Charlie in regard to running the film's eponymous boat - which was no easy task as they had to pilot it through some seriously rough waters, sneak past an enemy fort, and finally confront a gunboat filled with soldiers. Difficult and dangerous regardless of one's gender! Oh yeah and this is all happens in relatively remote East Africa.
While Rosie certainly holds her own in pretty much every way possible, there's no argument and no question of her standing alongside Charlie during the story's conflicts; plus Hepburn and Bogie pretty much carry the film with equal billing - it's a two person show with no supporting roles.
A Stealth Feminist Message
Like Jurassic Park, The African Queen doesn't wear its feminist message on its sleeve - there's no distinct discussion of gender parity and no need to make the man a fool or chauvinist in order to make a point - Rosie and Charlie both just get things done and do what they need to do to survive.
It is also a love story, but it's pretty egalitarian and appropriately feminist in the sense that the man isn't doing the pursuing and the women isn't a damsel in distress or a prize to be won - they're attracted to each other and become a couple somewhat naturally as the plot unfolds. All of this combines to make for a wonderful movie starring a kickass, empowering heroine that deserves its feminist acclaim, and then some.
PS. It's currently streaming on Netflix if you want to check out it during your next movie night.