Earthy Courage

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Review of 'North Country', director Niki Kato

North Country does two things which are rare in a Hollywood film. It examines the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and its main character is a blue-collar working class woman. Niki Cato, the film director best known for her previous film Whale Rider, has delivered a progressive political movie, which stands well alongside the new crop of radical Hollywood films.

The film takes its inspiration from the true story of the US's first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment, brought against a mining company in the late 1980s.

Josie Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, is the woman mineworker at the centre of the lawsuit. She returns to her hometown after splitting from a husband who has beaten her. An old school friend - Glory (Frances McDormand) - who 'drives truck' at the mine and earns six times what a woman earns in other work, encourages Josie to apply for a job.

Working in the mine is never going to be easy for a woman. There are also the attitudes of many of the men and the wider community - jobs are scarce and most think women shouldn't be taking them. Josie knows this better than most - her father Hank (Richard Jenkins), a lifelong miner, is opposed to her working in the mine.

Changing attitudes is not Josie's agenda. For all its hardships the job, and particularly the pay cheque, are liberating. She has the money to look after her children and, as she tells Glory, she feels alive for the first time.

Her sense of freedom doesn't last long. Following a sexual comment, the new women miners are warned by the male supervisor that 'rule numero uno' is to have a sense of humour. But humour is neither lacking or the answer to the sexual intimidation and harassment the women face from a minority of miners. Reaching for a packet of cigarettes, Josie's boss gropes the breasts of one of her colleagues. Shit is smeared on the walls of the women's lockers, a dildo placed in a lunch box. In the face of opposition from all around her Josie naively begins to complain - to management, to the union, to anyone who will listen.

The real Josie, Lois Jenson, who brought the class action against Eveleth Mines, endured a 14-year courtroom battle before the case was eventually won. The court case opens and ends the film. The judicial system is as much part of the problem as the solution. The female lawyer hired by the company to defeat the lawsuit pursues a 'nuts or sluts' line of attack. In Josie's case it's slut, forcing her to admit to a rape by a school teacher that she had kept hidden from her family.

The need to compress the events into a much shorter time frame makes some of the scenes a little contrived. But the great performances by Sissy Spacek as Josie's mother, Richard Jenkins as her father, Frances McDormand as Glory and Woody Harrelson as the lawyer who fights her case hold even these scenes.

Throughout the film the famous Anita Hill case that alleged sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court Justice nominee of Bush senior's administration, hovers in the background. Anita Hill became a hate figure for many on the Republican right who were happy to encourage the media's 'nuts and sluts' coverage of the case and use the opportunity to try to hammer home an advantage against what they called 'political correctness'. North Country is a film that wants to give an advantage to those who fight to oppose inequality.