Made In Dagenham Movie Review: Norma Rae In Bras

173

Globalization has created a troubling New World Order in more ways than one. So while factory workers in the Third World make products for the United States that their own meager wages prevent them from purchasing themselves, Americans, including the vast unemployed, are the intended consumers of foreign produced goods previously originating from manufacturing jobs that have been eliminated here.

And in the continuing shrinking global economy, it’s apparently a lot harder to navigate through metal detectors and checkpoints to enter another country, than have an all-American baseball cap end up in your possession, that’s been made in China. Or a Ford vehicle say, Made In Dagenham. Add to that movie title a collective biopic about the female UK Ford plant machinists who struggled for equal pay on a par with the men in the mid-20th century, and you’ve got one of the most inspiring yet strangely simultaneously heartfelt and lighthearted films about the labor movement, in years.

Sally Hawkins is every bit an exquisitely transformative UK Norma Rae as can be as Rita O’Grady, a reticent young Dagenham working-class mother and factory drudge who finds herself much to her surprise, thrust into a labor leadership role through sheer anger and frustration over inequitable pay and conditions to which the female machinists are subjected at that Ford plant. And while the men assemble cars for higher pay in Ford’s pleasant new facility, the 187 women are confined to a deteriorated older building, sewing car seat upholstery under a leaky roof and stripping down to their bras under literally sweltering summer sweat shop conditions.

When Rita looks into upgrading the women’s work classification with the compassionate support of the male union rep (Bob Hoskins), so that they might achieve pay equity with the men, she is shocked to discover that job title has nothing to do with it. But rather, that the Ford company has covertly set in place guidelines that have established women’s work as less worthy, financially and otherwise. And presumably a source of pocket change secondary to their main vocations as housewives, to supplement the salaries of their spouses.

And corporations exploited this perceived threat by the male workforce, as a cost cutting measure effected by keeping female wages down. While determined resistance from both Ford and the company union leads to mobilization and strikes by the women that spread to other towns, and finally to only partial victory in pay raises.

Drawn into the conflict is Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Caught between her privileged class position of authority – and by extension the status quo – among the male political elite, and her own dormant feelings of female alienation among them as the recipient of culturally entrenched condescension, Castle switches sides to support the women, and facilitate their victory. Though this questionable shift in narrative emphasis downplays the fierce struggle of these women that brutally impacted every aspect of their lives and marriages, to give the dishonest impression that concessions to their demands were ultimately just handed to them, by an eventually more enlightened and charitable corporation and government.

And as uplifting and glowing a story as Nigel Cole’s Made In Dagenham may be, the facts are quite different. And the film should in no way diminish the historical record, for which so many struggled with such brave and unyielding hearts, under formidable circumstances.

In truth, the salaries of the women rose, but not their job title status affecting pension and other benefits, until several decades later in 1984, following a seven week strike. And today, women workers still earn only 77 cents of the male dollar in wages.

In the meantime, Castle herself pushed for the first anti-union laws since the WW II, leading the way for the Heath assault on unions and eventually Thatcher’s too. While the Ford Corporation, which since 1968 has ruthlessly laid off millions of workers around the world and tens of thousands in Dagenham, is praised in the film’s credits as a subsequently benevolent-minded employer.

Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R

3 1/2 stars

And in the continuing shrinking global economy, it’s apparently a lot harder to navigate through metal detectors and checkpoints to enter another country, than have an all-American baseball cap end up in your possession, that’s been made in China. Or a Ford vehicle say, Made In Dagenham. Add to that movie title a collective biopic about the female UK Ford plant machinists who struggled for equal pay on a par with the men in the mid-20th century, and you’ve got one of the most inspiring yet strangely simultaneously heartfelt and lighthearted films about the labor movement, in years.

Sally Hawkins is every bit an exquisitely transformative UK Norma Rae as can be as Rita O’Grady, a reticent young Dagenham working-class mother and factory drudge who finds herself much to her surprise, thrust into a labor leadership role through sheer anger and frustration over inequitable pay and conditions to which the female machinists are subjected at that Ford plant. And while the men assemble cars for higher pay in Ford’s pleasant new facility, the 187 women are confined to a deteriorated older building, sewing car seat upholstery under a leaky roof and stripping down to their bras under literally sweltering summer sweat shop conditions.

When Rita looks into upgrading the women’s work classification with the compassionate support of the male union rep (Bob Hoskins), so that they might achieve pay equity with the men, she is shocked to discover that job title has nothing to do with it. But rather, that the Ford company has covertly set in place guidelines that have established women’s work as less worthy, financially and otherwise. And presumably a source of pocket change secondary to their main vocations as housewives, to supplement the salaries of their spouses.

And corporations exploited this perceived threat by the male workforce, as a cost cutting measure effected by keeping female wages down. While determined resistance from both Ford and the company union leads to mobilization and strikes by the women that spread to other towns, and finally to only partial victory in pay raises.

Drawn into the conflict is Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Caught between her privileged class position of authority – and by extension the status quo – among the male political elite, and her own dormant feelings of female alienation among them as the recipient of culturally entrenched condescension, Castle switches sides to support the women, and facilitate their victory. Though this questionable shift in narrative emphasis downplays the fierce struggle of these women that brutally impacted every aspect of their lives and marriages, to give the dishonest impression that concessions to their demands were ultimately just handed to them, by an eventually more enlightened and charitable corporation and government.

And as uplifting and glowing a story as Nigel Cole’s Made In Dagenham may be, the facts are quite different. And the film should in no way diminish the historical record, for which so many struggled with such brave and unyielding hearts, under formidable circumstances.

In truth, the salaries of the women rose, but not their job title status affecting pension and other benefits, until several decades later in 1984, following a seven week strike. And today, women workers still earn only 77 cents of the male dollar in wages.

In the meantime, Castle herself pushed for the first anti-union laws since the WW II, leading the way for the Heath assault on unions and eventually Thatcher’s too. While the Ford Corporation, which since 1968 has ruthlessly laid off millions of workers around the world and tens of thousands in Dagenham, is praised in the film’s credits as a subsequently benevolent-minded employer.

Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R

3 1/2 stars