A playful tale of the fight for equal pay

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2010 - 6:06 AM

The British film "Made in Dagenham" documents a slice of labor history with an entertaining touch.

Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich have a spunky new sister-in-arms. She is Rita O'Grady, a chipper, unassuming wife and mother turned radical determined to win equal pay for women.

Inspired by a true story, the crackerjack crowd-pleaser "Made in Dagenham" dramatizes the factory walkout she led, turning this forgotten page in feminist history into an inspirational joy. How nice to see a feel-good movie about women that isn't fixated on romance and handbags. Directed by Nigel ("Calendar Girls") Cole, it's an entertaining, humanist slice of social history scored with a soundtrack of upbeat late-'60s radio hits.

In 1968, Ford's auto plant in Dagenham, near London, was a fairly tranquil place. Men stamped metal and turned bolts, women sewed leather seat covers and everyone made do. Hardly anyone questioned the two-tier wage scale that paid the factory's 187 seamstresses less than equivalently skilled male machinists. Gender equality wasn't a widely discussed issue.

When management moves to reclassify the women from "semi-skilled" to "unskilled," sympathetic union steward Albert (Bob Hoskins), reminded of his self-sacrificing mum, thinks something ought to be done. Albert approaches plucky, cheerful Rita (Sally Hawkins), the best candidate to galvanize and represent the women.

She's a great choice. Once she is invited to sit in on labor-management negotiations where the women's concerns are winkingly brushed aside, her indignation begins to simmer. Her feisty challenges to the status quo rankle not just the auto executives but the union hierarchy. Her co-workers' husbands and boyfriends are bemused and supportive when she organizes a women's strike. Then Ford idles the plant, putting 55,000 men on the street and stirring dissension within families. Rita's shy, simple husband, Eddie (Daniel Mays), loses his stomach for her work stoppage when the repo men remove their fridge.

Aid and comfort come from unexpected quarters. Rita finds allies in the Ford boss' Cambridge-educated trophy wife Lisa (ex-Bond beauty Rosamund Pike) and Britain's secretary of state for employment and productivity, Barbara Castle. The politician, played with table-pounding brio by Miranda Richardson, has a hilarious running gag, repeatedly making mincemeat of her sniveling, obstructionist male aides. The film implies that wherever they stand on the socio-political spectrum, women fundamentally understand one another and share in the struggle for respect.

When the press makes a novelty of Rita, flocking to photograph the "Revlon revolutionary," Eddie's frustration turns to pride. The nation soon follows.

This is a wonderfully cheeky and observant piece of work, balancing a sense of the underpaid workers' plight with a sharp sense of humor. Henry Ford famously founded his company on the notion that cars should be so affordable that his own workers could own one. The film shows the Dagenham workforce biking to the plant; a decent second income would put a lot of those families in Ford automobiles.

The Ford executive treats his wife with unthinking condescension; when a visiting American strikebreaker thanks him for Lisa's home-cooked meal, the man tuts, "It was the least I could do." Rita and Barbara negotiate like pros in a meeting at Parliament, then bond with a little fashion gossip before going public with their historic agreement on equal pay. And in a mixup that actually occurred while the women picketed, their banner with the motto "We Want Sex Equality" folds, accidentally reading "We Want Sex."

While the film dabbles in clichés and stereotypes, it keeps one foot firmly planted in reality. At the end credits we see interviews with the Dagenham strikers whose actions inspired equal pay legislation around the world. This isn't just a jolly good history lesson, it's a bloody smart crowd-pleaser.

ccovert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186

 

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