Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Cole’

Meet Me at the Protest

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Maybe I’m mellowing out a bit as I age, but it’s actually a pretty rare thing these days for anyone’s opinion about a movie to raise my ire to the point that I feel compelled to write an entire article refuting it. Maybe a Facebook post. Perhaps just a 140 character Tweet. But for me to devote an entire blog post or column to a subject, it has to really strike a chord in me. So I’d like to offer my congratulations to David Cox, whose article in The Guardian last week on Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham succeeded where so many other inane pieces have failed, inspiring an entire post to refute it.

Made in Dagenham is a fictionalization (though one that, by all accounts, stays fairly close to truth) of a strike by female factory workers at a Ford plant in Dagenham in 1968. A strike that, by the bye, was crucial to the eventual passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 (that would be Great Britain’s Equal Pay Act, not the one passed in the US and signed into law by John F. Kennedy in 1963, after which it was put into a vault and completely ignored by the mostly male managers who run things).

Mr. Cox kicks off his piece with this bit: “Dagenham in the 1960s is presented as in thrall to blinkered routine, bumbling incompetence and heedless injustice. It’s a place controlled by men, and its deficiencies spring from theirs.”

Actually, the film presents Dagenham as representative of the Western world generally in 1968. Historical context: England at that time was barely recovered from the economic devastation of World War 2. Post-war, Great Britain went through a period of not only physically rebuilding, but of vast social change; the fledgling post-war Labour Party had nationalized many industries. Since Mr. Cox writes for a Brit paper and might even, for all I know, be British himself, he should know this already. I grew up in America, where the accuracy of our school textbooks depends largely upon the whim of fundamentalist Christian ministers advising mostly white male politicians, and even I know that much.

Further, the context of this film isn’t about women versus men, it’s about women convincing men — in both their union and the larger entity of the Labour Party — to recognize that what’s fair, what’s right, is for unions in general and the Labour Party in particular, to work to support the rights of all workers, not just men. And at that point in history, they did not. You could make an argument that this is not the case today, but even that would be a dicey one to support.

The film doesn’t create some non-existent fantasy world controlled by men; it was a world controlled by men. The women working in that factory were devalued by their male co-workers, referred to by the diminutive term “girls” even when they were older than their male co-workers and managers. The work they did — women’s work, because it involved using sewing machines, and men can’t use sewing machines! They have penises, remember? — was devalued by reclassifying their jobs as “unskilled” so the men in charge could pay them even less than they were already. It wasn’t female managers making those decisions. There were no women at the top of the union heap representing the interests of its female membership.

And the injustice depicted wasn’t heedless, it was explicitly and deliberately designed to both keep women in their place and to control the bottom line — profit — which would be impacted hugely if the demand for equal pay was met. Not just because that one little demand being met for 187 women would have been huge. It was the collective bargaining power of working women around the world being inspired and compelled to demand equality — a movement that was starting to seriously impact larger society — that these men — were afraid of.

It took courage, spirit, and, yes, balls for the women who marched for equality to stand up to their fathers, brothers and husbands, to take off their high heels and aprons, to cast aside the expectations of the men in their lives and in their workplace that the woman’s place was to be subservient to them. The women at the Dagenham factory, fueled, in part, by the burgeoning feminist movement, collectively put their cute little womanly heads together and said, we’re sorry, chaps, but fuck that.

And Made in Dagenham, which depicts their story, is great if for no other reasons than that tells a nearly lost tale about the fight for women’s equality and it’s about women doing more than talking about men and sex and fashion. Also, it stars Sally Hawkins, who is indisputably a British goddess.

But wait! Mr. Cox takes issue also with the casting of the divine Ms. Hawkins in the role of Rita O’Grady, a fictionalized character who’s an amalgam of two or three real women. Apparently Ms. Hawkins isn’t as burly and manly as he would like her to be. Perhaps the makeup department should have given Ms. Hawkins a hairy mole and a brawny mustache, because heaven forbid a working class, protesting, budding feminist woman who’s an abstract representation of real women should be depicted as attractive. Because everyone knows feminists are all burly lesbians with short haircuts and comfortable shoes, right?

Mr. Cox also takes issue with the film’s depiction of the well-established scientific fact that women and men tend to do things in different ways. He says of the film, “Women do things differently. In their domain, sisterly co-operation replaces blustering self-promotion. Compassion trumps protocol. Good humour banishes pomposity. Above all, homely common sense mocks heartless custom-and-practice. The triumph of these values makes the world a better place.”

Well, yes. So what? Women do do things differently than men. And Made in Dagenham is a story about these particular women and how, united by their common cause and yes, god forbid, “sisterly” co-operation, they found the courage to stand up for their rights, at a time in history when women were largely pinned under the boot heels of men.

Next, Mr. Cox attacks the film for daring to imply that men and their testosterone cause problems: “War, it’s implied, in Iraq as much as the Peloponnese, is rooted in machismo. Political factionalism is displaced brawling. Disastrously reckless financial speculation is fueled by testosterone.”

Yes. Yes. And yes, absolutely. Actually, the “testosterone” effect of successful financial traders has been studied for a while now, Mr. Cox. Here’s an article from TIME on that very subject for you to peruse. (It’s also discussed in Charles Ferguson‘s Inside Job, which breaks down the global financial collapse that sent the entire world into a tailspin when the bubble burst in 2008. By the way, the vast majority of the people responsible for that shit? Were men. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

The war for equality didn’t end in Dagenham. In fact, it’s barely begun — as evidenced by this recent article on the disparity in pay between women and men on Wall Street, which discusses little things that might piss feminists off, like women working in the financial sector losing their jobs at five times the rate of men since July 2007. And female managers in the finance field earning 63.9 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Oops, scratch that — in 2007, the most recent year for which data from the Government Accountability Office was available for that Bloomberg article, that dropped to 58.8 cents. Wait, what happened to equal pay? Well, fuck.

The women who protested at Dagenham, at the time they went on strike, were being paid 87 percent of the rate paid to “unskilled” male workers and 80 percent of the rate paid to “semi-skilled” male workers. Women working in finance in 2010 may be bringing home more bacon, but the percentage of what they’re paid compared to their male colleagues has gotten worse, not better. Sucks to be a woman, I guess.

Made in Dagenham does push buttons, yes. But those buttons are well-worn because they’ve been pushed before and need to be pushed again, and again, and again, until the men who are still largely in control of things get the message and fix things. Because the things that were broken in 1968 when the real women of Dagenham went on strike are, to a large extent, still broken. This is exactly why a film like Made in Dagenham is relevant, important, and necessary today.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pop off to paint some protest signs.

TIFF Review: Made in Dagenham

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

The film with the strongest “female empowerment” vibe at TIFF may just be Made in Dagenham, a film about the feminist movement taking over an unlikely corner of working class England in 1968, when female factory workers who sewed seat covers for the Ford Motors plant went on strike.

For once, we have a film about women where they do something interesting and important, and talk about things other than the men in their lives or fashion. Hallelujah. It’s kind of the anti-Sex and the City — a Norma Rae tale of the British working class with a vibe tonally similar to Calendar Girls (also directed by Cole) or The Full Monty (not directed by Cole), so if you liked either or both of those films, you’ll almost certainly like this one.

Made in Dagenham stars Sally Hawkins, whose presence in a film is always a good thing; Toss Bob Hoskins in the mix, and you up the odds considerably of the film being a winner.

Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a wife, mother and factory worker at the Dagenham factory where she works alongside 186 other women sewing custom-made seat covers for Ford cars. The women are downgraded to “unskilled labor” and end up striking not just to be reinstated to “semi-skilled” but for equal pay, at a time when the tide of feminism was rising and threatening to sweep the corporate world by storm. This film is really about much more than this particular strike at this particular point in history, though; it’s about what’s fair, what’s “right” versus what’s a “privilege,” and the need to stand up for what you believe in, even in the face of adversity.

The film dramatizes how the men — both in management and the women’s own husbands — are at first patronizingly tolerant of “the girls” going on strike, but when push comes to shove and their own jobs at the factory are jeopardized by the shutdown, it’s another story. Although the women supported their men when they went on strike, the shoe being on the other foot doesn’t fit quite as well with the male perspective on women’s place in society.

And to an extent, that’s every bit as relevant today as it was in 1968, the year in which I was born. I work, and travel for my job, and I’ve experienced a lot in my own career having people dare to question my commitment to my family and whether my work conflicts with that — something I daresay my male colleagues have largely never had to deal with. Things have changed a lot on the one hand with regard to women in the workplace and pay (although we still have yet to achieve that whole “equal pay” thing across the board), but on the other hand societal attitudes towards working women haven’t changed all that much over 40 years later. We’ve still got a long ways to go, baby … but it’s thanks to women like Rita O’Grady that we’ve come as far as we have.

I could see Made in Dagenham playing very well to the female audience in America with the right marketing and enough critical support behind it; it’s a relevant film about an important topic, and moreover it’s enormously entertaining. In addition to Hawkins and Hoskins, by the bye, Miranda Richardson is on-hand as British Labour Party firebrand Barbara Castle, and she does a hell of a job bringing that great lady to life.

Overall, Made in Dagenham is solid, entertaining, even inspiring. I’d love to see this film get a little momentum behind it, because Hawkins is every bit as good in this film as she was in Happy-Go-Lucky.

The DVD Wrap: City Island, The Back-Up Plan, $5 a Day, Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, The Square, Abandoned and more …

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

City Island: Blu-ray

If Leo Tolstoy had written Anna Karenina in the 1970s, instead of the 1870s, and as a screenplay, instead of a novel, it might have begun thusly, “Happy families are all alike; every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.” Or to put it another way, “Happy families belong in TV sitcoms; unhappy families are more at home in quirky indie films co-starring Alan Arkin.”

The 76-year-old Second City alum isn’t required to steal any scenes in City Island, as he did in Little Miss Sunshine and The Slums of Beverly Hills. but his presence is duly noted at key moments.