Charlize Theron in North Country: Over the Waterfall
Director Niki Caro's North Country is a fictionalized version of the sexual harassment suit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act by Lois Jenson, Patricia Kosmach, and Kathleen O'Brien Anderson on behalf of themselves and their fellow women mineworkers at the Eveleth Taconite mine in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Jenson had originally filed a sex discrimination charge with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on 26 October 1984. Nearly four years later, with no effective action having been taken, Jenson and Kosmach filed their class action complaint on 15 August 1988, adding Anderson as a plaintiff on 14 March 1989. There's a book about the case, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, and this article from the Fall 2003 issue of The Labor Lawyer, which summarizes both the facts and the law as it was eventually established in the District Court of Minnesota and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In its decision certifying the class, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 139 F.R.D. 657, 663 (D. Minn. 1991), the District Court noted the following as "evidence of pervasive offensive conduct":
Sexually explicit graffiti and posters were found on the walls and in lunchroom areas, tool rooms, lockers, desks, and offices. Such material was found in women's vehicles, on elevators, in women's restrooms, in inter-office mail, and in locked company bulletin boards. [The sign inside the locked case read, "Sexual Harassment in this area will not be reported. However, it will be graded."]In addition, as the Labor Lawyer article relates, "Although each worker had his or her own private locker, with a separate locker room for the women, one or more men would enter the women's locker room and ejaculate on the clothing in their lockers." Acquaintance with the facts makes it plain that the behavior the women were subjected to was so scurrilous that moviemakers wouldn't have to make anything up.
Women reported incidents of unwelcome touching, including kissing, pinching, and grabbing. Women reported offensive language directed at individuals as well as frequent "generic" comments that women did not belong in the mines, kept jobs from men, and belonged home with their children.
Discovery (i.e., requests for information by both parties to a suit in preparation for trial) was first overseen in the Jenson case by Magistrate Judge McNulty, who permitted defense attorneys to gather data for a "nuts-and-sluts defense." As the Eighth Circuit noted in its opinion, "Personal events [that the] defendants sought to discover included detailed medical histories, childhood experiences, domestic abuse, abortions, and sexual relationships, etc." (The Eighth Circuit's decision, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 130 F.3d 1287 (8th Cir. 1997), is available free online.) For instance, McNulty allowed the defense to depose the fathers of Jenson's two children, one of whom had gotten Jenson pregnant when he raped her. (Such overbroad investigation is one form of what is called "abusive discovery" or "discovery abuse.") The Eighth Circuit eventually agreed with the plaintiffs that "much of the discovery … was not relevant or was so remote in time, that it should not have been allowed." 130 F.3d at 1292-93.
The trial was bifurcated into successive liability and damages phases. The plaintiffs won on liability and then proposed that the damages phase be delegated to a Special Master. Unfortunately, the District Court appointed McNulty, who had once made a pass at a female attorney from the bench, and who permitted Eveleth's "nuts and sluts defense" to go ahead. The defense asked the plaintiffs about personal material revealed by discovery ostensibly to determine if something besides the harassment at work might have caused the emotional injuries they complained of. The more likely purpose, however, was to embarrass, intimidate, and discredit the plaintiffs with matter that was unrelated to the case. (As the Labor Lawyer article notes, one of the Jenson plaintiffs withdrew from the case "rather than disclose that her son had been convicted of murder.")
Special Master McNulty did not, however, allow the plaintiffs to introduce their own psychological experts to counter the implication that they had trouble at the mine because they were crazy whores. Then, in his Report and Recommendation, in which he blamed the plaintiffs for being histrionic and for misinterpreting "reasonably expectable interpersonal conflicts in sexual terms," McNulty discussed Jenson's rape although her testimony relating to it was under seal pursuant to his own discovery order. (As Bingham and Gansler write, "When the subject of rape came up in court, the courtroom was cleared of any extraneous people, and the testimony was marked as confidential in the transcript.")
This bizarre phase of the trial actually set the plaintiffs up for victory in the Eighth Circuit because McNulty made reversible errors of law. The Eighth Circuit's decision vacated the Special Master's Report and Recommendation and ordered the District Court to conduct a new trial on damages. The case was settled in early 1999, when Jenson and Anderson were on medical leave from Eveleth and Kosmach was dead of Lou Gehrig's disease. All told, the litigation had three important consequences, to quote again from The Labor Lawyer: "(1) limiting abusive discovery in sexual harassment litigation; (2) recognizing that sexual harassment can form the basis of a class action; and (3) making corporate America realize the importance of preventing sexual harassment."
North Country takes Jenson's case and transfigures it into the heroic crusade of one Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a battered wife who moves back in with her parents to figure out how to take care of herself and her two kids. She's scraping by washing hair at a salon when she recognizes Glory (Frances McDormand), a high school girlfriend who now drives truck at the mine and who recommends Josey get a (better-paying) job there, too. Glory warns Josey that it's rough for women at the mine—the men feel that women take jobs that properly belong to men, especially since the contraction of industrial production in the US is throwing a lot of men out of work. (The movie doesn't mention that Eveleth had begun hiring women in 1974 pursuant to a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor; Eveleth had agreed to guarantee 20 percent of new jobs to women and minorities.) But nothing could prepare Josey, or us, for what it's like for women at the mines.
The screenwriter Michael Seitzman has rearranged the facts and created connections that don't exist in the record in order to spread out before us an epic depiction of sexist behavior, covering everything from job discrimination to battery to rape, with every form of Stand-By-Your-Man and blaming-the-victim in between. Josey's father, for instance, is among the miners who believe that women don't belong in the mine (whereas, according to Bingham and Gansler, Jenson's father Joe "was all for his daughter working at the mine"); her supervisor is a guy she flirted with in high school and who witnessed the rape in which her older child was conceived; the lawyer she hires is a friend of Glory's that she's trying to set Josey up with. Meanwhile, her mother (Sissy Spacek) believes Josey's place is at home with her kids, and both her parents turn their backs when her husband shows up and starts manhandling Josey. Dad tells Josey that taking a job at the mine will just humiliate her out-of-work husband, as if that should be her first consideration.
Even the other female mineworkers think that Josey brings trouble on them all by speaking out against their demeaning treatment. Josey, like the Little Red Hen, can't get any of the other women to join in her class action suit, not even Glory who's too devoted to the union and her own sense of invulnerability. In the movie there are only four possible candidates, although the District Court stated, "Plaintiffs asserted that 65 women have been employed at Eveleth Mines since December 13, 1983, and at least 23 women have applied for employment." 139 F.R.D. at 664. And according to Bingham and Gansler, when their attorney said they would need a woman who worked in the pits to make the plaintiffs representative of the class on behalf of which they were suing, Pat Kosmach "chimed in" with, "I've heard a few tough stories out of the pit. I think I can help you find a gal over there who would join us."
North Country is thus not an epic of working-class life but of the various forms of sexual oppression to be encountered in it, and Josey is at the center of every one of them. This has the effect of turning a woman who battled for justice for well over a decade into a perpetual victim. (Even her son turns against her.) With her boo-hoo blue eyes, Theron's Josey is as put-upon as Anna Moore, the country maiden played by Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920). Anna is tricked into a fake wedding by a city slicker and then abandoned; the illegitimate child she gives birth to dies. She finds work on a farm but when the squire of the farmstead learns of her past he throws Anna out into the snow. His son, the sensitive hero, then rescues her from an ice floe as it's about to take her over a waterfall. North Country is Victorian melodrama in feminist workduds: the valiant hero is now Josey's lawyer and abusive discovery the waterfall.
The plot of Way Down East was antiquated upon its release but the movie still offers the inestimable compensation of Gish's utterly committed acting and Griffith's epochal filmmaking. North Country doesn't come close to Griffith's achievement as a piece of filmmaking, and draws no benefit from its real-life subject matter because it doesn't live up to the responsibility the subject matter imposes. Sadly, all North Country shows is how moviemakers habitually reconstitute reality as romance. Jenson may have planted the seed of corporate liability for sexual harassment, but what Caro and company harvest is tough, overgrown theatrical corn.
The movie can't even come together on these degraded terms because it's so divided. It operates on the assumption that the heroine has to be put-upon or we might not side with her, though if we really understand the situation that wouldn't be necessary. At the same time, however, Josey has to be triumphant, although by portraying her as put-upon they make her seem as if she wouldn't be hardy or practical enough to pull off what the actual Jenson did. Unlike Josey, who quits her job before suing the mine, the plaintiffs continued working at Eveleth and intelligently took photographs of the "escalating sexist and obscene graffiti, notes, and props that became ever more prevalent." When they decided to bring a private action against the company they hired a team of Minneapolis attorneys, including Paul Sprenger who had brought the first class action case under Title VII in the Eighth Circuit.
McDormand as Glory actually has the grit that Theron as Josey lacks. (Even Doris Day as the union seamstress being courted by the factory supervisor while preparing for a strike in the musical comedy The Pajama Game (1957) seems stronger-willed than Josey.) Of course, unlike her model Pat Kosmach, Glory isn't party to the suit from day one, but like Kosmach she is devoted to the union and she is dying. Despite this diminution, McDormand is so resilient, and salty, she instantly establishes a rapport with the restless audience, and if the moviemakers had made her the central figure they might have had a hit. As is, the pretty young thing out of virginal melodrama is too damn pitiful to carry a two-hour epic set in an iron ore mine.
The real peculiarity of the moviemakers' sympathy-at-all-costs approach, however, is that they take as the substance of Josey's story all the personal material that the plaintiffs' attorneys wanted to keep out and that the Eighth Circuit agreed was irrelevant. The Jenson case set a precedent limiting abusive discovery but such material is pretty much the entirety of the moviemakers' sense of drama. The courtroom scenes in particular are shaped around the abusive discovery, only seen sympathetically. In North Country it isn't irrelevant that Josey was raped, it's a central item in her favor. (This tack is the opposite of the one taken by the makers of the equally uninspired, "prestigious" feminist bomb The Contender (2000), which I wrote about here.)
The courtroom scenes in North Country, as is so often the case, really expose how shopworn the moviemakers' narrative artistry is. Jenson's attorneys wisely preserved the record of the damages phase of the suit in anticipation of their appeal to the Eighth Circuit. Josey's attorney, by contrast, tries to break one of the harassers on the stand, to make him admit Josey was raped as she claims. The dirty little sneak breaks, of course, turning this landmark suit into an episode of Perry Mason. There's no whisper of sealing Josey's rape testimony or of clearing the courtroom, of course, because the structure of melodrama demands that her humiliation and vindication be as public as possible. Josey's attorney then proceeds to give a speech during which Glory, apparently having heard it was open-mike night at the District Court, rolls in to croak her newfound faith in Josey's cause from her wheelchair. Finally, the crowd in the courtroom, having learned the same lesson at the same time in a pandemic of enlightenment, stands to show solidarity with Josey. Even if this stand-up climax were at all likely, it would be a bad thing—we don't want courts making decisions by reference to audience applause. (The staging is so ridiculous they might as well have done a sports-stadium wave.)
Naturalism is the narrative genre that describes what is. The extensive factual and legal record in the Jenson case would seem to make the moviemakers' work easy. But they don't just want to present Jenson's case, they want to put it over, and so they turn to romance, which, in stark contrast to naturalism, begins with an ideal and constructs a symbolic demonstration in which that ideal triumphs thanks to the "indomitable spirit" of the virtuous hero. (That's why Pat Kosmach ends up rechristened "Glory" and Lois Jenson ends up with the bull's-eye-seeking surname "Aimes.") In this way romance has something of a ritual effect—we come to witness the inevitable victory of good over evil. We're consoled by it precisely because it isn't like what we see in our daily experience, the way we might be consoled in church by the promise of the day of judgment. That's the theory, anyway, but romance lives up to this theory only to the extent it embodies commonly and deeply held spiritual values. Anything short of that reeks of complacent fantasizing.
The long, tortured, uncertain, and physically depleting course that Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. took through the judicial system over 14 years simply doesn't involve a situation conducive to romance storytelling. And at its core it's not about commonly held spiritual values, but just the opposite—it's about a shift in mores, both among the mineworkers and their families, and among the corporate management. If there's an epic subject, that would be it, and it's such a tricky one that even the federal courts got tangled up trying to sort it out. As Bingham and Gansler record, McNulty as Special Master in the damages phase of the trial was
untroubled by comments made by male coworkers suggesting that women belonged home and pregnant, not in the mines. Such statements, he said, were expressions of free speech and were made in the context of the free exchange of ideas. And McNulty clearly believed that Eveleth Mines should not be penalized for what was the cultural norm in the Iron Range. "We must also bear in mind," he wrote, "that for generations the iron mining industry on the Iron Range was dominated by males who were products of a culture which is reflected" in the sexual tensions that gave rise to the lawsuit. A restructuring of the culture, he wrote, could not be expected to happen "overnight." After all, he noted, the Civil Rights Act was only three decades old.(Limits on expression in the workplace can indeed end up punishing sexual speech that is free of the intent to harass, as this 22 October 2003 Cato Institute article demonstrates. Keep in mind, however, that in the Jenson case the men's words and actions specifically expressed hostility to the presence of women in the workplace solely because they were women. The environment was thus literally hostile, and many of their actions were well over the line of sexual battery, in any event.) Bingham and Gansler are plainly disgusted by McNulty's comments, but they themselves establish a similar point—without justifying it, of course—at the beginning of their book:
"Females are there to be used and abused," said a [Mesabi Iron Range] male. "Take care of me, my kids, my family and don't bother me. I'm going fishing. Women are chattel." A classic Ranger bumper sticker reads: THE PERFECT WOMAN: A NYMPHOMANIAC WHO OWNS A LIQUOR STORE.In vacating McNulty's opinion, the Eighth Circuit stated: "We emphatically reject the Special Master's conclusion … that the fact that the culture of the Iron Range mining industry allowed sexual harassment is a mitigating factor for Eveleth Mines…. Instead, we find this observation underscores the overall culpability of Eveleth Mines." It will probably seem clear to anyone likely to read this review that the Eighth Circuit was right, but the men who felt that women didn't belong in the mines were coming from somewhere, besides Mars.
Getting into this sex-role paradigm shift might well make for a great movie (though it's hard to think of a model for it), but the writer and director of that movie would have to have much more talent than Seitzman and Caro (i.e., any) for naturalistic reenactment and analysis. Instead, North Country is shaped much like Whale Rider (2003), Caro's international hit in which a little girl in New Zealand proves herself as a tribal leader despite her grandfather's insistence that it's not a role for a girl. Hopes dashed, tears, hugs, compromise, mutual respect, uptilted chins, more tears and hugs.
North Country similarly goes at a sociological topic emotionally, an approach that is undercut by the fact that nothing in North Country feels like lived experience. Certainly not the union meeting in which the miners first cheer for a hooligan denouncing Josey with obscene epithets; after Josey's union-veteran father, his sense of chivalry outraged, gets up and defends her right to speak, the same group then cheers for him. (The union audience has the firmness of conviction of the citizens at Springfield town meetings on The Simpsons.) Next in unbelievability would be the scene in which Josey is called a whore by her supervisor's wife at Josey's son's hockey game. The son, who's about 12, is so upset he decides to spend the night with his girlfriend's family. The girl's mother, vividly aware of the precariousness of a girl's reputation in their small town, nevertheless thinks it's a good plan.
You rarely feel you're seeing working-class life represented as it is, and similarly the role of class in general is left unexamined. For instance, the plaintiffs could not rely on their own union for support; as the District Court said in its opinion in the liability phase of the trial, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 824 F. Supp. 847, 879 (D. Minn. 1993):
Under the existing grievance process, were a female employee to bring a charge against a fellow bargaining unit employee, the Union would be required to simultaneously press the woman's claim and seek to avoid punishment for the alleged male perpetrator. The need to stand on both sides of a charge of sexual harassment presents a potential conflict of interest which reasonably renders the [Collective Bargaining Agreement's] grievance procedure ineffective as the primary mechanism for addressing complaints of sexual harassment brought by one bargaining unit member against another.Instead, the plaintiffs received just treatment only by recourse to the jurisdiction of the professional class of jurists. (Even Special Master McNulty awarded them some money for damages.) The case thus reveals some unpleasant contradictions in union progressivism and working-class solidarity, as well as fair play and chivalry more generally, and corporate rationality and juristic wisdom, too, among other categories. The moviemakers, however, aren't interested in any aspect of the story beyond its ability to enhance the melodrama. They so totally lack interest in the assorted components of the Mesabi Iron Range mentality that they present Josey's view as if it were natural, which the movie's own epic-melodramatic structure contradicts in every scene. I assume this results from the fact that the movie was made by and for an educated audience who would, or like to think they would, have been sensitive to Josey's predicament when she first brought the grievance. Thus, apart from her bad shag hair-do, Josey becomes a working-class heroine that a female yuppie can identify.
Every fact, every condition, every basis for analysis that could have made North Country the complex and important work it is fairly hyperventilating to be taken for has been misjudged if not falsified outright. (One of the irritating historical distortions is to show Josey being inspired to sue by watching Anita Hill's October 1991 testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Lois Jenson and Pat Kosmach first sought redress in 1984 and, unlike Hill, they did so while still working with and under the men they were complaining about.) Read the court opinions, read Bingham and Gansler's book; if there's any problem for moviemakers it's that the facts are so extreme the audience might think they were exaggerating. Seitzman and Caro took truth that now seems stranger than fiction and simplified it into comfortingly predictable fable. How do you blow that kind of capital and end up with so little to show for it?
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.