© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

On movies: 'Dagenham' puts fun in feminist labor effort

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2010 - A feel-good movie about militant members of an industrial union winning a big raise? My first thought was, "Sounds like it happened a long time ago." My second thought was, well, the 1960s were a long time ago.

"Made in Dagenham" is in a way very much like another current English movie, "The King's Speech," but set at the other end of the social scale. Both movies are unabashedly romantic celebrations of the doughty British spirit with remarkable performances at the center of them -- Colin Firth as the future King George VI in "The Kings Speech" and Sally Hawkins as unlikely labor organizer Rita O'Grady in "Made in Dagenham."

Hawkins, who made a spectacular debut (at least for American audiences) as the relentlessly sunny Poppy in Mike Leigh's wry comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky," tugs "Made in Dagenham" through some highly predictable moments by the sheer force of her vivacious will.

It's 1968, a propitious year for all sorts of movements, and the 187 women who work in the dilapidated upholstery department at the huge Ford Motor Co. plant in Dagenham are paid substantially less than the men who work on the main production line. The attitude of management, and of the main leaders of the autoworkers union, is that the men are the important workers, the "breadwinners." The women, it is thought, are just picking up extra money between having children.

With the help of a rare male union representative who is sympathetic to the notion of gender equality (Bob Hoskins), some women organize to change the status quo. An unlikely leader, the seemingly scatterbrained Rita O'Grady rises from the ranks and, once she gets her footing, turns out to be a shrewd, tough, even audacious negotiator. The women go on strike; the union men, who include many of their husbands, reluctantly support them, and two women of the establishment -- the wife of a Ford executive and a member of the British cabinet -– find that they sympathize with the cause.

"Made in Dagenham" was directed by Nigel Cole with the same cheerful pop feminism he brought to "Calendar Girls." Cole's method of dealing with thorny issues is typified by a funny moment when overfed, decidedly bourgeois male union leaders argue with each other by offering competing quotes from the works of Karl Marx.

Hawkins, Hoskins and the supporting cast are excellent. The movie blurs some serious issues -- for example, the fight for equal pay in England was hardly settled by the strike at Dagenham -- but the anything-goes spirit of the '60s is captured. All in all, "Made In Dagenham" is a lot of fun.

Opens Wed., Dec. 29

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.