Made in Dagenham
By: Dennis Morton / Broadcast on: 1.12.11
Ford Motors made a lot of cars in the 1960s in Dagenham, a manufacturing suburb of London. But that’s not all that was ‘made in Dagenham’. As we learn in the new Sally Hawkins film, history was made there, too.
Perhaps, in the long struggle for equal rights for women, in the western world, at least, no event is more important, yet as little known, as what happened in Dagenham in the late Spring of 1968.
Made In Dagenham is the story of a strike against the Ford Motor Company by a small band of very determined women. There were only 187 of them. Their work had been arbitrarily devalued by the greed mongers at the helm of the British branch of the company - a devaluation approved of by the shoe lickers at the top of the union hierarchy.
The amazing Sally Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a seamstress thrust into a role she’d never imagined would be hers. With the help of Albert, a union underling possessed of an appreciation for fairness and justice, and at odds with his superiors over these issues, Rita
soon finds herself in unusual company.
The film is not a documentary, and Rita’s character, according to the production notes,
is a conflation of several of the actual strike leaders. But Hawkins makes Rita believable.
As if in training for the formidable confrontations inevitable in resolving issues of magnitude, Rita’s first encounter with power in the film comes as she meets her son’s
teacher, a bully who physically abuses his students and who verbally abuses their parents.
The meeting does not go well. Rita’s intentions dissolve into silent consternation. But, as we will see, Rita is a quick learner. Before long, she’ll have the opportunity to meet head to head with several of the most powerful figures in Britain, and her experience with the bully teacher will serve her well.
I’ve watched Made In Dagenham three times, but not until the third time did I catch director Nigel Cole’s salute to an earlier Sally Hawkins film, called Happy Go Lucky. Both films open with a very cheery Sally Hawkins riding a bicycle. But there, most of the similarities in character end. In Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, Hawkins’ Poppy is inveterately happy and seemingly care free. In Made In Dagenham, her character, Rita, is a mother, a wife, and a working woman - basically shy, but possessed of a steely grit that surfaces when the situation merits.
In Made In Dagenham, most of the characters feel so real that the few who don’t stand out like that famous sore thumb. The toadies who attend to the needs of The Secretary of State in Harold Wilson’s Labor government are completely unbelievable. And the top dog in the labor union is so oafishly ridiculous that the scenes he’s in lack credibility.
Other than that, Made In Dagenham is a thoroughly enjoyable film, a drama tinged with humor and just the right touch of pathos. You’ll learn and you’ll laugh. And you’ll be wondering when the next Rita will rise up among us and help move the world closer to the equality we say we cherish, but have yet to realize.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.