Politics At The Movies

Made in Dagenham

Directed by Nigel Cole

In 1968, the Ford factory in Dagenham, England employed 55,000 men and 187 women. The women worked as machinists, as in sewing machine operators, stitching upholstery for seats and door liners. They were essential to the factory, assembling parts that the cars couldn’t be built without, but also essentially overlooked by their coworkers and management.

They had stood behind the men in the many work stoppages but had never initiated one themselves – nor did anyone expect that they ever would. They had also voted for a new pay scale but had then been placed at the bottom of it, as “unskilled” workers despite the clearly skilled nature of the work they did. All of which leads to a movie that is somewhat like an English “Norma Rae” (1979, Sally Field) as the women become more organized and begin to make their own demands.

It’s also important to understand or remember the context and time the movie is set in. The film also shows newly appointed Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle (played by Miranda Richardson), who remarks to her staff that even though the Labor party had campaigned two years earlier on employment issues, the previous year had seen 26,000 strikes and 5,000,000 lost employee/work days. Relations between labor and management in industry were at a low point. A decade earlier, this dynamic was expertly satirized in “I’m Alright Jack,” with many of the most familiar British actors of the time. In 1968’s Dagenham, the female machinists are still universally referred to as “girls” and are both underpaid and under-appreciated.

This sex discrimination is endemic in the union structure as well, as leaders debated supporting the women in light of the fact that it might divert resources away from the men. Their male counterparts are not as eager to support their work actions as the women are to support the men.  

The central female character, Rita O’Grady, is played excellently by Sally Hawkins (who won a well-deserved Golden Globe for her lead performance in 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky”) and the supportive (and male) shop steward is played by Bob Hoskins (with a Golden Globe for 1986’s “Mona Lisa”) – so the film is on firm footing to begin with. Additionally, the Ford negotiator, sent over from the U.S. to ensure no precedents are set in terms of closing the gendered salary gap, is played by Emmy-winning Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”). With the aforementioned Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle, the outcome is as might be expected with a powerful series of performances in support of an inherently compelling story and history lesson.

That history lesson is also complemented by small details in the vehicles, fashions, the classist and sexist attitudes of the time, and other smaller details. At one point, Rita is pleasantly surprised by a pineapple, a fruit that was considered quite exotic in my own childhood in England during the same period (unless it came out of a can). But the central theme of the movie is always the labor dispute. It was a truly pivotal moment in British politics, ultimately leading to the Equal Pay Act of 1970 which, in turn, influenced similar legislation elsewhere. If you like your dramas with a dose of history, or your history with a dose of drama, this is a movie that can stand alongside the recent “The King’s Speech,” 2000’s “Billy Elliot,” or “Norma Rae.” This is well worth checking out and might even make it into a few classrooms. (Opens tomorrow)

Sacramento Film & Music Festival WinterFEST

Politics and social justice also take a central role in “WinterFEST” – a new event to mark the beginning of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival’s 12th season. With 11 film programs and 31 individual films starting on Saturday, January 15th – the Festival culminates on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 17th) with a full day’s lineup of political documentaries.  

“Lost Harmony” (1:30 p.m.) was made by a young Japanese man who first came to the U.S. as an exchange student and who, several years later, returns to Tokyo to show his American roommate his home country. But he is shocked at how Americanized it has become, with American brand names dominating the marketplace and U.S. government interference in Japanese domestic policy. “Lost Harmony” is supported by the documentary short “Obligation to Endure” which considers the closing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s research libraries.

In “Atomic Mom” (3:30 p.m.) an Oakland woman interviews her own mother about her involvement in nuclear bomb testing during the 1950s, both at the Nevada test site and later in labs in San Francisco. She also travels to Japan to interview a Hiroshima survivor and acts as a go-between for the two older women. “Atomic Mom” is supported by an animated short “Sharfik” (“Scarf”) which demonstrates the horrors of war through the story of one family during the siege of Leningrad.

“Sowing the Seeds of Justice” (5:30 p.m.) documents the life and legal career of Cruz Reynoso, California’s first Latino state supreme court justice (appointed by Jerry Brown, the first time around) and still a member of the UC Davis law faculty.  

The full Festival schedule and ticketing links can be found online at

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