Gay Pride and Prejudices
Directed by Matthew Warchus. Writer:
Review by Peter Hulm
How much fact do we want in our fiction? Pride, a story of the 1984-5 miners strike when gays supported a Welsh coal-mining community, was rated highly for accuracy to the facts by the U.K.'s Guardian, which described the film as "wonderful". But there were some interesting omissions and elisions for students of the truth.
Participants and public recorders of the unity between London-based gays and a Welsh mining village rated Pride as authentic both with regard to the facts and the feeling of the time. It faithfully captured the sense of achievement when the miners turned up for London's Gay Pride march and led the parade.
A half-hour film made by the gays in 1985 commemorates the feelings of those involved and makes it clear how deeply both sides felt the sense of solidarity (and how well the actors did in looking like their real-life counterparts).
What could not be shown — simply because there wasn't visible imagery — was less comforting: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke of "the enemy within" and froze the National Union of Miners fund for its strikers through court action.
The Miners leader Arthur Scargill refused to send the money that was collected to Wales, preferring the miners in his powerbase, the North of England, and Kent.
So the 1000 Welsh miners, needing £3000 a week to keep going, were pleased rather than skeptical when London gays, men and women, offered them support and money they collected. The Dulais Valley Lodge, the focus of the film, was one of the first to accept gay support.
Also pushed to the background was the staunch Left-wing bent of the gays: there was also division within tbe Socialist camp between compromisers and activists. The hero of the film, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), was a Young Communist League member, but we don't learn that in the film. And only at the end that he died in 1987 of AIDS. We do learn that a fellow campaigner (Dominic West) was one of the first people in the U.K. diagnosed as HIV-positive, and is still alive.
There were complaints that the U.S. DVD cover changed the slogans seen in the march from explicitly gay to a more anodyne version.
Nor was it simply a tale of metropolitan solidarity with the periphery's hicks. In January 1985 there were 11 gay support groups around the country.
With the aim of giving viewers a simple narrative perhaps, the film did not present the cloud of AIDS that decimated many in the gay community — and spurred Ashton into action — or the outrage that Britain was doing so little to support those afflicted by the disease.
The boy was invented to provide viewers with someone they could identify with
A young demonstrator (George MacKay) finally came out to his outraged parents and was kept at home from then on — until he walked out of the house: into the pub where his lesbian best friend was waiting for him with a pint of beer, and then marches in the front of the parade. The film-maker confessed the boy was invented to provide viewers with someone they could identify with in their trip into political (?) weirdness.
A young mining wife who has never enjoyed sex impulsively kisses a lesbian supporter who tells her sex can be enjoyable for women too. A pensioner poet in the mining community (Bill Nighy) confesses to being gay and hears from his friend (Imelda Staunton) that she guessed it 20 years ago.
The 1985 gay pride organizers put the miners' gay groups at the back of the parade because they are political (the only significant event of political import), then immediately have to put them up front when (surprise!) the miners turn up in buses. Were their plans completely unknown?
Political tensions true
At least one viewer (not me) expected one of the sons of the main anti-gay mother to come out before the end of the film. Mercifully, it didn't happen.
That said, it did have one dramatic arc that said something new about the relationships within the political movements of the time: the women gays set up their own organization because the male gays were running the show — just as in the mining communities, the women too came forward.
The film also showed personal dramas within the mining community that were not settled by the strike experience: a wife complains of her husband's passivity (unjustly) in the face of anti-gay action.
It makes clear that the central figure argued strongly that both groups share a common interest — and both were stigmatized by authorities and the media, and that harrassment of both groups was encouraged.
Paddy Considine achieved the difficult task of showing how a mine leader could accept and welcome the support of the gay community — much more engaging and instructive than the narrative of the young man coming out.
The writer-creator Stephen Beresford insisted to the miners that he was a storyteller not a documentary film-maker.
A reluctance to speak of socialism
The Guardian's Reel history fact checker notes: "The new film does occasionally resort to mocking the lesbian separatists. One difference you might notice is the film's relative reluctance to use words like 'socialism'. Perhaps it's trying not to alienate too many American viewers, who may be able to tolerate a few friendly queer folk — but might prefer rampant Marxists stayed firmly in the closet."
Ray Goodspeed, a founding member of the gays group, has recalled: "Antagonism towards us in Dulais has been exaggerated for dramatic effect. The welcome we received was actually even better than in the film, which also downplays the extent to which the original members were actively involved in the organised left."
He records earlier attempts to join up the two groups, going back to 1971, but describes the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) as having "achieved the breakthrough which led to its almost legendary reputation and interest shown from all over the world".
The film does not hide the fact that the strike failed. But with National Union of Miners support (and from other trade unionists), the Labour Party integrated gay rights into their platform that year.
'Good, fluffy people' - no way
Even so, the feel-good delivery gets up some people's noses. "In the film we're depicted as good, fluffy people supporting the miners but there was a clear strategy on Mark's part to align himself with the labour movement in order to get gay politics, sexual liberation, HIV and Aids treatment on to the political agenda," says Ashton's friend Roy James, who blames Mark's death on the lack of resources devoted to HIV in the 1980s.
"Thatcher and Reagan were seen to be in cahoots," James told Jamie Doward of The Guardian. "They were resisting any requests or demands that would start research funding. They did not do it until the heterosexual community demanded it. People were sick and dying and nothing was being done about it. We, as gay people, saw it as a form of genocide."
The everyday unrelenting deprivation is hard to make visible (there is a bingo session with a tin of beef as the prize). Nothing is made of the Dulais Valley Lodge miners passing on the word to other strikers, increasing support for the gay cause. Nor do we hear that Gay Conservatives gave £25 to strike-breaking miners, or that it was 1997 before Labour got into power to enact "some of the best equality legislation in the world".
What did the miners want?
We don't learn about the miners' goals with the strike (against the closure of 70 pits), with employment seen as a complete justification for keeping such environmentally damaging operations open (hardly possible even then).
Elise Nakhnikian at Slant described it accurately as "formulaically cheery, didactically 'uplifting,' and fundamentally false as a Disney sports movie, bloated with swelling music, healing hugs and hearty handshakes, suspiciously eloquent impromptu speeches, and tight-lipped expressions of bigotry smacked down by smugly delivered liberal pieties."
"We get made-for-Hollywood interactions between salt-of-the-earth townspeople and gay city slickers, like a scene in the union hall where a woman starts singing a beautiful rendition of 'Bread and Roses' and all the other women slowly join in [this may have happened] as the onlookers get teary-eyed. Or the one where LGSM, about to be relegated to the rear of London's gay pride parade, is put in the lead instead when scores of miners and their wives show up, just in the nick of time, to join them."
LGSM not so important
Dr Hywel Francis, who was strongly involved in the support network with his wife but does not appear in the film, observes in a Wales Online article launching his own book on the history: " In fact there was no homophobia shown towards the LGBT support group that forged a link with the striking miners. And the leading gay activist was in fact a Communist, something that doesn’t come out in the film [not quite true: see imdb's trivia section]. Neither was there a collapse of the alliance because of an informer – there was no informer. The role of women in the support groups was also absolutely crucial – more than that of the LGBT support group, important though they were."
From the start miners in South Wales were worried at being called out on strike without a ballot, he recalls, though at the time he believed one was not necessary. His father, a former mineworkers general secretary, believed the union could not win a public debate over pit closures. The failure to organize a ballot robbed the strike of wide support it could otherwise have gained, Dr Francis argues.
Nevertheless, The Guardian's Owen Jones sees the film as reminding the British public of an epochal moment in political history whose significance was only understood later but became largely invisible except to the gay community in the time of Tony Blair: Thatcherism could not destroy the building of common bonds among grassroots organizations. "Solidarity still lives and breathes."