Political Film Society - North Country


PFS Film Review
North Country


 

North CountryNorth Country, directed by Niki Caro, begins with titles that inform filmviewers that 1975 was the year when the first woman was hired in the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota, and that by 1989 the ratio of men to women was 30:1. The early part of the film establishes the identity of a fictional Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron), a single mother with two children who abandons an abusive boyfriend in downstate Minnesota to return to her hometown. She is welcomed by her mom, Alice (played by Sissey Spacek), but not by her father, Hank (played by Richard Jenkins), who believes that her illegitimate children have brought shame to the family. Rumors abound that she is a whore, and she wrongly suffers public humiliation at a hockey match from a woman who shouts in the stands that Josey is messing with her husband, Bobby Sharp (played by Jeremy Renner). Even her son Sammy (played by Thomas Curtis) displays hatred toward her; after all, schoolmates will necessarily tease him in a climate where accusations are difficult to disprove. Nevertheless, Josey and her children live initially with her parents. She gets a job in the mine and saves enough to get a house of her own, dilapidated but with potential for remodeling, with a 5 percent down payment. mining is a dirty business, and the miners and their bosses portrayed in the film could win an award (if there were one) for the ugliest in cinematic history. Instead, the male miners might be awarded the world's most chauvinistic: They openly believe that mining is "men's work," so they harass the women every day on the job. The forms of harassment include verbal barbs, nasty words written on walls and machinery, requests for kisses, touching, semen on clothing in a locker, being trapped and toppled in a Porta-Potty requested by the women (who need relief privately while men do so publicly), and ultimately physical assault. Complaints to the management and the union are useless. Throughout the film, segments of a court case are interjected. Eventually, after Josey ends up on the bottom in an assault, she quits the company, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and sues, utilizing Bill White (played by Woody Harrelson), the only lawyer in town, whom she has befriended at a local bar. Her inspiration for the filing the lawsuit is the brave testimony of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings of 1991. The lawyer warns her that management will use the "nuts and sluts" defense, namely, that she is either delusionary or a tramp. However, when he realizes that he can make considerable money by suing a prosperous company, he accepts the case, though he tells Josey that he changed his mind because he wanted the fame of winning the country's first class action sexual harassment lawsuit that will forever change personnel policies and practices in the United States. The problem is that she is one person, not a class, so White puts on the onus on Josey to get other females to join her case. She even tries to present her case at a union meeting, but Josey fails to mobilize the remaining employed women, who are thoroughly intimidated, need the job, and do not want to bring more grief on themselves. Nevertheless, the outrageous manner in which Josey is treated brings her father to her defense, especially since the day before his wife walked out him for his unwillingness to support his daughter. Her son also ends up supporting her after she testifies about how he was a child of rape by a high school teacher at the age of sixteen. Thus, the only hope for her case is to break down a male worker on the witness stand or to have him testify so outrageously in court that others will immediately line up behind Josey. The most exciting part of the film is thus how White pulls the proverbial rabbit out of the hat while questioning as a witness Bobby Sharp, who kept silent after witnessing her rape through a windowpane in a school door and now as a miner tries to repeat the feat at the bottom of the strip mine. A title at the end indicates that the successful lawsuit indeed changed American employment policies. North Country is based on the nonfiction Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (2002) by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler about the actual heroin, Lois Jenson, who endured a quarter century of workplace abuse as opposed to Josey's three-year ordeal (and the other fictionalized elements in the film). For those who prefer to read the court's landmark 1993 decision, the citation is Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Mines (824FSupp847). Incidentally, Jenson filed her first complaint in 1984, seven years before Anita Hill came forward, and thus could earn the title of the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment. For a film that brings to light facts not generally known about an important human rights issue, the Political Film Society has nominated North Country for two awards--best film exposé of 2005 and best film on human rights of 2005. MH

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Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law
by Clara Bingham, Laura Leedy Gansler

A collaboration between a journalist and a lawyer, this volume describes in elaborate detail the tortuous path of the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit, Jenson v. Eveleth Mines.