Brief comment on Made in Dagenham

There is quite a lot to say about Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham (UK, 2010), but I am going to stick to only a brief moment in the film.

As the actions of the striking Ford seamstresses bring the working males in Ford factories around the country to a halt, because they do not have enough car seats to continue fabricating the vehicles to completion, we see documentary footage of workers complaining. Men should be the chief bread winners, says one, while another says that the women should stop striking and let the men go back to work.

Not only did this moment remind me of how it was for the sake of men’s wounded egos, or so it is argued, that many women ended up losing jobs in the film industry back in the 1930s – because women post-Wall Street Crash were denied jobs that perhaps traditionally they had had (e.g. as editors), and instead they went to men in order to rebuild ‘national’ (i.e. male) morale.

But also, what was notable about this moment is that one of the men complaining about the striking women is black. The only black person in the whole film.

Surely the filmmakers could have shown footage of someone else (i.e. a white man) making a similar and sexist comment, had they wanted to. So why have a black man say this in the film? Well, perhaps it is to say that sexism cuts across races – and that the history of female emancipation has been as hard for black women as it has been for white women. In some senses, this would be a laudable point to make.

However, there are no black women in Made in Dagenham. Historically, it may be so that Ford did not employ black women in Dagenham in 1968 (when the film is set) – and this not through an articulated policy of exclusion, but simply because no black women happened to be within commuting distance of the factory (although this becomes hard to believe). In other words, it may be ‘accurate’ not to show black women working at the factory at the time.

But this lack of black women, which became noticeable through the inclusion of one black man, did remind me of the work of Jacqueline Bobo, who says in one of her essays that black women have been a structuring absence of American cinema. And so perhaps are they a structuring absence in British cinema (pace work by Lola Young).

The whiteness of mainstream British cinema is here brought to the fore. And, in particular, the fact that black women are rarely seen in British films (with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Thandie Newton disappearing to the USA; perhaps only Naomie Harris and Sophie Okonedo are well known and working in the UK right now, and they only get supporting roles).

(And this is not to mention lingering sexiam in the film industry more generally, let across ‘real’ life in general. I have been sad to hear other people’s opinions, for example, about how little chance Diane Abbott had of becoming leader of the Labour Party – as if she is not qualified for the job/as if she is a numbers-making also-ran. Whatever you otherwise think of her, not to take her candidacy seriously is only condescending. Which leads me to think about the bum deal that Hilary Clinton [least so], Sarah Palin [perhaps deserved] and Ségolène Royal have had in recent elections: the common argument/perception being that they are too ‘stupid’ [Palin and Royal, especially] to do the job – as if George W Bush, John Major, Nicolas Sarkozy and any number of recent politicos have been/are geniuses…)

Made in Dagenham asks for sexual equality. It implies some sense of racial equality by including the talk of one (sexist) black man (who appears, notably, in documentary footage – i.e. to reinforce the notion that black men really are sexist?). But it does not include any black women. Given how attractive the actresses are (I hate to put it this way, but their appearances are definitely more suited to the cinema screen than those of the real protestors whom we see later on in the film, again in documentary inserts), we could say that the film is not strictly that bothered with realism. And if it is not that bothered with realism, in that the film aestheticises its women participants, then why not have black actresses figure in the film, since the message of equality is the film’s chief aim as opposed to its being a critique of Ford’s (now outdated) sexist wage structures and the history of this particular moment in the/appropriated by the Women’s Lib movement…?

The truth is, I don’t know why – although I have my suspicions. But I’d like to see more and more prominent roles for and films featuring black British actresses – and actresses of all sorts of races and ethnicities – whither Archie Panjabi, Parminder Nagra, and, of course, many more?

As for my suspicions regarding the ‘truth’ behind the film’s ‘agenda’ – a rather large clue comes in the title: Made in Dagenham. ‘Made in…’ suggests something ironic along the lines of: the product being made is ‘pure British,’ with British here seemingly being defined by whiteness.

That is, Made in Dagenham is something of a flagwaving film about British identity, but the values of which, as we shall see, cannot stand up in the contemporary age.

Firstly, ‘Made in Dagenham’ seems positively parochial in the face of ‘made in China,’ ‘made in Korea,’ and ‘made in Taiwan.’ My point is not that ‘made in’ is the sole remit of Asia; plenty of things are made in Britain – as Elton John, in one of his most embarrassing songs, has suggested.

‘Made in Dagenham,’ however, seems to suggest something wholly and paradoxically British. If the Essex man is thought of as the lynchpin of Margaret Thatcher’s political career, Thatcher herself being considered one of the masterminds behind the ongoing de-industrialisation of the UK, then the Essex girl is here posited as a pro-Labour force – as is recognised by the co-optation of the Dagenham seamstresses by Barbara Castle in the film (with Miranda Richardson playing Castle as if indeed some ‘inverted Thatcher’ of sorts – a creation that can seem only to have made in hindsight, as is the whole ‘Essex’ discourse that did not necessarily exist at the time of the history being recounted/embellished in this film).

Barbara Castle was herself a supporter of decolonisation and racial equality – although it is not one of her beefs in this particular film. But that we should stick to ‘British’ – as the ‘made in…’ title seems to want to boast – is problematic (for me) in the face of globalisation, wherein in ‘made in…’ all too often refers to distant elsewheres whose sweat shop status is occulted in favour of ‘well, at least they have this job’ parlance.

The film’s all-white cast attests to the vision of Britain being put forward here and which might not conform to Barbara Castle’s in any direct way. It is also a vision of Britain that is at odds with the country’s present labourforce, which, since the dissolution of boundaries for EU citizens, has become increasingly diverse – above and beyond immigration flows dating back to the early post-war period. In other words, ‘made in’ does not mean much these days if in that place whatever is being made is being ‘made by’ a workforce of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. That is to say, Made in Dagenham is nostalgic about its past (1968 – a time of hope across Europe, after all) – which becomes a nostalgia difficult to maintain in the face of the film’s whitewashing of that past.

Perhaps the film already knows this – but tries to hide it. Ford is an American company, well known for its founder’s embracing of making profit over cars built to last. So while there is a sense of the Essex girl being ‘made in Dagenham,’ the film, for all of its equality rhetoric, is still very much about a burgeoning transnational economy in which industry controls politics. Or so it would appear. American Ford exec Tooley (Richard Schiff) threatens her with the closure of the Ford factories should she back their demand for equal pay, and Castle tells him more or less to shove off. In other words, not only is Castle defined here as distinctly feminist, but also distinctly British by being anti-American, which, while perhaps a popular move in the minds of many British viewers of the film, is similarly to whitewash Britain’s own colonial past. Exploitation is projected on to American economic policy, as if Ford were the sole perpetrators of wage inequalities. This is further brought to the fore by the ineptitude of the British Ford bosses, who do not have dossiers or files on their Union bosses, etc.

The message seems to be that American imperialism started in/also affects the UK – so Britain seems indirectly to be claiming kinship in this film with that which it has anything but: the Third World, which Britain itself continues systematically to exploit in all manner of ways.

Made in Dagenham is certainly charming and funny, featuring some delightful performances (although I shall only single out Rosamund Pike, not because she acts Sally Hawkins and/or the others off the screen, but because she seems to have grown in confidence and nuance across her last few films). But it seems as though the things that are missing from it are also some of the things that bring out its slightly twisted politics. Namely, using a progressive political moment (equal pay for women workers in the UK) to also posit a deeply conservative vision of the UK as a country defined by whiteness, as in denial of its colonial past/present by projecting exploitation on to America, and as a country proud of its labour force, despite the fact that, with hindsight, the Barbara Castle of this film can be seen as only a minor dam long since obliterated in the tide against the de-industrialisation of the UK (as signalled by the slow demise of many British car manufacturers since the end of World War 2).

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brief comment on Made in Dagenham

  1. Pingback: Comment on Made in Dagenham « Roehampton Film Extra

  2. Pingback: Mike Leigh in Ruins | wjrcbrown on film

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