It wasn’t just Rubik’s Cubes, chopper bikes, and synthesizer bands wearing raincoats for no obvious reason. It was a time of heightened class war. The ruling class internationally was in thrall to neo-liberalism. Everything was being privatised and sold to pirates who swooped in and took over assets that had recently been seen as everyone’s. They couldn’t have done it without the help of politicians. They set the legislative framework enabling their mates in the private sector to do the damage.
In Aotearoa the Labour Party under Lange and Douglas lead the assault. The formula here was to savagely restructure the economy while throwing a couple of bones to the social liberals. This involved passing legislation to make NZ nuclear-free and decriminalising homosexuality. Though there was protest around the economic changes, the social reforms took the edge off some of the potential for deeper dissent.
In England, Thatcher and the Conservatives didn’t bother taking the rough edges off their agenda. They made attacks on both the economy and society. Homosexuality was legal if over 21 and Thatcher’s positions encouraged a hostile environment, compounded by the panic surrounding AIDS. Simultaneously, she embarked on a year-long attack on the miners who sought to protect their jobs. Divide and rule is a classic approach by governments. They rely on a lack of cohesion and co-ordination on the part of their enemies. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, the opposition of and organising among ordinary people can surprise their rulers.
Pride (2014) is a movie that shows us a real-life of example of those from seemingly unrelated parts of society coming together and forging bonds based on shared oppression. It opens in 1984 and initially looks at a group of gay-rights activists in London called Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). They begin by focusing on their own struggle. Little by little, they realise that the miners are being attacked by the same government that is making their own lives a misery. The gay group faces opposition internally from those who have experienced miners as socially conservative homophobes, but they persevere in making connections. This involves going to a mining community in South Wales, after doing fundraising for them. The two sides form genuine bonds and though the miners are eventually defeated, the experience of mutual aid had ongoing positive spin-offs.
Other films have had the de-industrialisation of British miners as a background. For example, Brassed Off (1996) and Billy Elliot (2000) touched on these themes. What Pride has over these predecessors is that the strike is the very reason for the story. It also manages a difficult but fully realised balance between light-hearted accessibility for the viewer, while giving a sophisticated portrayal of the interactions of the characters. The tone is humorous and serious by turns, but the jokes are often subtle and an organic outgrowth of the scenario. They never feel forced. We see multiple motivations and complexities emerge. Some miners embrace the gay activists from the start, others take time to warm to them, some remain indifferent and some are hostile throughout. Surprisingly the fault lines aren’t always age-related. Among the activists, some are more engaged than others and they too have internal divisions. For example, a few among the lesbian contingent form a separatist organisation. So while solidarity between the different groups is ultimately achieved, the intricacies and difficulties of achieving this are fully recognised.
Another very impressive element of the film is the ensemble approach to the acting. There is a large cast of characters who all get chances to shine. There is a subplot involving Joe (George MacKay) a young closeted member of the group. He is our initial way into the social landscape the characters inhabit. His story is well developed and acted, but without taking away from the others. Likewise the predicament of an estranged Welsh activist Gethin (Andrew Scott) who returns to his homeland. Another key player is Mark (Ben Schnetzer) who is the main catalyst for initiating the LGSM and is a firebrand agitator. Again his portrayal is well realised. In lesser hands, you can imagine him sounding purely like a stereotype who only speaks in slogans, but here we get the sense of a real person. Its worth noting, however, that the movie came in for some criticism from Mark’s real-life friends who noticed that the movie overlooks his overt Communism. It is very softly hinted at but mostly through occasional visual signifiers rather than explicitly voiced. In that sense, he is kept in the political closet. Pride is a commercial film and they probably didn’t want to scare off the producers. Overall, nearly all the characters are nicely developed and even those with minor/miner roles feel solid due to the acting. Take for example the elderly Cliff (Bill Nighy), a proud member of the mining community. His screen time is limited but every look and inflection conveys depths of experience, gravitas, and wistful longing.
The diegetic music in the story is in keeping with the decade. The clothes, hairstyles, and mise-en-scene are all perfectly rendered and the dialogue contains no out-of-period idioms. It looks and feels like the 80s’ in all their hideous glory. The camera work is self-effacing and rarely draws attention to itself and is made to serve the narrative. It all works well.
Pride tells an important story of how ordinary people can overcome barriers and develop links despite outward differences. It doesn’t mean this is easy or that every struggle can be won when this is done. The miners lost. Nevertheless, the benefits of joining together for those of us on the receiving end of social prejudice, economic oppression, and political domination are such that we have a greater chance of winning in the end if we make the effort to find these connections. That’s something we can take pride in and is just as true in Aotearoa, the UK, and elsewhere now as it was in 1984.