October 22nd, 2005
Being a fan of the British actor Sean Bean ever since he did the Sharpe series, I do try to catch his movies on the big screen, no matter what the subject matter. This led me into the theater this weekend to see North Country, a film loosely based on the first class action sexual harassment suit, brought by female miners from Minnesota's Iron Range.
As a native of St. Paul who spent each summer of her youth in the far north, North Country was about what I expected, right down to a couple of over-the-top Minnesota accents among the minor characters, nobody wearing hats and gloves in the middle of winter and an interior that was obviously from the film's second location in New Mexico and not Minnesota, as it featured stuffed mule deer and elk, not whitetails and moose.
What I didn't expect was the audience. I went to the 7:30 show on Friday night at one of the cineplexes in Asheville, North Carolina. Usually I am one of the few old fogies in a weekend evening audience, but not for this film. There were about 50 people at the screening and I'd guess at least a third of them had gray hair, lots of gray hair. Between that and the number of men with beards, I thought I had stumbled into the senior faculty lounge of UNC at Asheville. The only youngsters were two or three small packs of girls in their late teens to early twenties. No young dating couples were in sight.
As for the movie, its heroine and her fight against sexual harassment, I haven't seen so much abuse heaped upon a cinematic protagonist since I watched The Passion of the Christ.
It isn't enough that the men – all the men – at every level of the mining company where she finds work are unmitigated vicious male chauvinist swine, Josie (Charlize Theron) is also the scandalous unwed teenage mom returned home to veiled glances and gossip at the church supper. She's the abused wife forced back into her parent's house, where her always-disappointed father asks if her hubby gave her that black eye because he caught her sleeping around. After she's falsely accused of chasing after married men in front of the whole town, at the big hockey game, even her junior high age son says he hates her and calls her a whore.
With so much testosterone running amok against our gal, can it be a surprise when near the end of the movie we learn the only kind, warm, intelligent guy in town, a former miner now on disability and married to Josie's sole female friend (Frances McDormand) has but one testicle! (Sean Bean in a rare non-villain role.)
How ham-handed is this movie? To make extra sure we get the point, they have what seems to be every woman in town watching Anita Hill on TV. The real case behind this "inspired by" movie began well before the '1989' that flashes on the screen in the opening scene. Who knew the TV reception was so good in Northern Minnesota they could pick up Anita Hill's testimony to the Judiciary Committee quite early on in the movie and well before Clarence Thomas's name was even placed in nomination in 1991!
Even those who like this film admit the final court room scenes are a wee bit unrealistic. Interestingly, some of the movie's harshest reviews have come from the political far left. These reviewers expressed strong dismay, not that court room scenes are quite silly and amateur, but that when the witness for the defense finally breaks down on the stand, it is to reveal that Josie's scandalous teenage motherhood was the result of her having been raped by a high school teacher! This, they complain, conveys the message one has to be a saint to be able to claim sexual harassment. My objection was more practical. Could it be possible she told no one at all about this rape when it happened? Even if she was afraid of her parents' reaction or that the school officials wouldn't believe her, didn't she have a single girlfriend at that high school?
By and large the mainstream media critics are praising this film, some even predicting Oscar nods for acting and cinematography. My favorite has been this tidbit from the New York Times.
Last year, the advocacy group National Women's Law Center issued a report that accused the Bush administration of rolling back gains for women in all walks of life, noting the diminished number of sex-discrimination cases handled by the Justice Department. It's hard to imagine what the women who fought Eveleth Mines would make of these developments, though it is a good guess that they would be pleased to see their struggle onscreen and back in the public eye.
Perhaps those women would see the diminished number of sex discrimination cases as evidence their battle has pretty much been won these 20 years later! The review reminds me of the Times' similar clueless wonderment at how the prisons can be full when the crime rate is down. Could it be that in 2005 women are so widely accepted in the workplace that harassment is not occurring, except on an isolated basis? Can it be that with women outnumbering men in college and at many graduate schools, discrimination is a thing of the past.
That would explain the unusual demographics of the audience at my sitting rather nicely. Sexual harassment might still be compelling to old timers reliving their glory years, but it is simply ancient history to today's young people.
Rosslyn Smith is a lawyer in North Carolina.