Thursday, April 7, 2011

Made in Dagenham

"Girls Behaving Badly (Acting Well)"
"That's How We've Always Done It"

Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham tells the story behind the struggle to get the Equal Pay Act of 1970 passed—the one that finally guaranteed that in a Union job, a woman received equal pay to a man.

What's that, you say?  "We don't have that law in America?" 

Yes.  Precisely.

The action that led to that piece hesitates to say "forward-thinking"...legislation was the 1968 Ford sewing machinist's strike in Essex, which resulted from the lady-sewers being down-graded to "unskilled worker" status and receiving a 15% reduction of their salaries.  Initially, the about-to-be-strikers merely wanted their status returned to normal, but finding reluctance on the part of the Union to support them, the entire group staged a walk-out, shutting down auto production for the entire plant.  It was only with the intervention of Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle (played here by Miranda Richardson) that a compromise was reached, first bringing the women's salary to 92% of the men, upgrading it to 100% the following year, and, finally, the working out of the Equal Pay Act of 1970

The strike lasted all of three weeks.

But those three weeks shut down auto production at Ford's Essex plant, alienating the male Union workers and driving a wedge in Ford working households, splintering the machinist's Union (hypocritically balking at "all things being equal," comrade), and raising the ire of the Ford Motor Company, which sends an emmissary (played by Richard Schiff, and although shaved and looking different, he portrays the "dark side" of his "West Wing" character, Toby Ziegler). 

This all happened, but not in the way Made in Dagenham would have you believe.  The sewers left en masse, all 187 of them, but the film simplifies it to one woman who serves as the catalyst for the action.  There was no "Rita O'Grady" (Sally Hawkins), she's a construct by writer William Ivory to be a mouth-piece for all the issues in the film, the one everyone gravitates to when they have a point to make about the situation.*  She starts out being naive and not a "joiner," the better to have things explained for the audience, but she morphs into a Union firebrand who says all the right things at all the right times, while everybody else takes a back seat.  It simplifies things in the story process, sure, but if you're going to pay tribute to the efforts of a group, do you ignore them for the most part, in favor of fiction?  How's that paying tribute?  "Rita" is the one who impresses the Union rep Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins) to join the negotiations.  She speaks up to the dragging Union bosses who don't see their demands as a "gain."  She's the one that Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), the upper-class, degreed wife of a Ford manager comes to when we need to be told the oppression of women extends beyond the factory...all roads lead to "Rita."  Like Cole's previous film Calendar Girls, there's a bit of patronization to the film, a sort of "aren't they cute, fighting for their rights and all (bless 'em)"

But, it's heart is in the right place.  At least.

Made in Dragenham is a Rental.

* Norma Rae was fictionalized, too, but at least there was a "Norma Rae," in the person of Crystal Lee Sutton.

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