Radium Girls


Where does their skin get that healthy glow? Radium!

(2018) True Life Drama (CineMosaic) Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Colin Kelly-Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Joe Grifasi, Brandon Gill, Olivia Macklin, Colby Minifie, Greg Hildreth, Veanne Cox, Tom Galantich, Steven Hauck, Carol Cadby, Gina Piersanti, Julianna Sass, Neil Akins, Gemma Schreier. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler

Most of my readers will be too young to remember but there was a time when watches were painted with radium paint in order to make the dials luminescent. In the 1920s and 1930s, outfits like United States Radium and the Radium Dial Company employed women as young as 11 years old to paint the watch faces using camel hair brushes that the girls would dip into the paint and then paint the face of the watch. The brush would quickly lose its shape and the girls were instructed to use their lips to bring the brush to a point and then resume dipping and painting.

In 1928 the United States Radium Company employed 75 women in their New Jersey plant, including sisters Bessie (King) and Jo (Quinn). A third sister had also worked there but she’d passed away some months earlier. The girls are high-spirited, Bessie more so than Jo – especially after Jo falls ill. Bessie is really worried, particularly since Jo was by far the superior earner of the two (the girls are paid for each watch face they complete and Jo not only paints more of them but is far more meticulous). She asks the boss (Lloyd) if Jo can get seen by the company doctor, which he reluctantly agrees to.

The girls have been told that radium is perfectly safe; the company doctor tells Jo initially it’s just the flu and to drink lots of fluids and rest but Bessie insists on a thorough examination. The diagnosis comes back a syphilis, which is a bit amazing considering that Jo is a virgin. Bessie, never a radical, begins to discern a pattern developing among the girls at the factory who are all beginning to show symptoms of the same illness. Suspecting a rat, she sees a labor organization who helps her get a lawyer – she intends to hit United States Radium in the only place they understand; their wallets.

This is an important story and it deserves to be told. It has appeared on a number of different television shows, including 1,000 Ways to Die and other fact-based television shows. Books have been written around the girls as well as at least one stage play that I’m aware of. Oddly, it hasn’t been the subject of a theatrical feature until now and considering how important the case would become to labor laws in this country it’s almost inconceivable (and yes, I do know what it means). Perhaps because the victims were all women has it not gotten the coverage that’s warranted.

The movie is reasonably well-acted; the cast other than King is pretty much unknown but Pilcher and Mohler manage to get some pretty decent work tells me a lot about them as directors. They also are to be commended for their creative use of archival footage (and black and white recreations that look archival) that is inserted at various points during the film. That’s really imaginatively done and as a history buff I really appreciated it.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it feels too much like a movie of the week. That comes a great deal from the writing which has a kind of melodramatic feel to it. I’m not sure if the writers were trying to go for a period feel here or not but it doesn’t work. The movie is at its best not when it is showing us how horrible the rest of the world was to these women, but when it allows us to get to know who they were as people. Another thing I’m not sure of; I don’t know if the characters here were the actual Radium Girls from the U.S.R. plant in New Jersey or merely based on them. The names I’ve found for the actual litigants in the case were different than the ones given to the characters in the movie.

Also, the filmmakers failed to mention that there were two other groups of Radium Girls, one in Ottawa, Illinois who went through the same ordeal ten years after their New Jersey sisters did. That company, Radium Dial Company, had to have been fully aware of the dangers of radium and yet urged their employees to use the “lip, dip, paint” method anyway. It took eight trials (all of which were won by the litigants) for the Illinois Radium Girls to get the money they needed for medical expenses; it was a case of the company stalling so that the victims would die before they had to pay out anything. That gives you an idea of what monsters were running that company.

The real Radium Girls died real deaths that were terrible, gruesome and absolutely unconscionable. That they were abandoned to their fates by callous employers who saw them as expendable commodities that could easily be replaced only adds to the horror. It would be nice to say that things have changed a great deal since these events happened but sadly, they have not. The fact that the current administration is actively trying to strike down existing worker safety laws is proof enough of that.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes a wonderful use of archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels too much like a Movie of the Week (in a bad way).
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you take a Geiger counter to the graves of the Radium Girls, it still registers as radioactive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Girls of the Sun

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Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Skin


Skin

Sophie Okonedo ruminates on how ironic it is that her skin, so beautiful, could cause her so much trouble.

(2008) True Life Drama (Elysian) Sophie Okonedo, Alice Krige, Sam Neill, Ella Ramangwane, Hannes Brummer, Tembi Murake, Danny Keogh, Ben Botha, Nicole Holme, Lauren Das Neves, Jonathan Pienaar, Gordon Van Rooyan, Tony Kgoroge, Corbus Venter, Anna-Mart van der Merwe. Directed by Anthony Fabian

 

South Africa is a changed land. There are, however, many in the United States – particularly of the younger generation – who have little or no memory of the system of apartheid that reigned there until 1994 that relegated the black majority to second class status. Nearly all of us are unaware of the story of Sandra Laing, for whom apartheid did far more insidious damage.

Sandra (Ramangwane) was a well-adjusted little girl, adored by her shopkeeper parents Abraham (Neill) and Sannie (Krige). They are Afrikaans, living in the East Transvaal of South Africa in the 1950s, but while Abraham and Sannie are both lily-white, Sandra’s skin is darker-hued and her hair curly. Despite evidence to the contrary, she appears to have at least some African blood in here.

That is a problem in South African society. When Sandra’s parents drop her off in an all-white boarding school, after a short time during which she undergoes brutal teasing and extensive ostracizing, she is pulled from school by police officers and escorted home. Her parents are outraged – their daughter has been classified as colored, even though both parents are white. They go through extensive legal battles to reclassify her as white, finally getting a geneticist to testify that it is entirely possible that there is enough African DNA in even the whitest of Afrikaans to show up dominant unexpectedly. The Supreme Court at last classifies Sandra as white.

But that doesn’t make the now-teenaged Sandra (Okonedo) happy, although her parents are pleased as punch. Sandra knows she’s never going to be accepted by white South Africa, legal or not. On top of that, she falls in love with a black vegetable seller named Petrus (Kgoroge) who does business with her father.

However her father is not nearly as tolerant perhaps as you might think, and not only forbids the relationship but chases off Petrus with a shotgun. Like most willful daughters, this only strengthens Sandra’s resolve and soon enough she’s pregnant. When she elopes with her man to Swaziland, her father disowns her. They remain estranged for a very long time.

In the meantime, Sandra – cut off from her family and now living the life that most black members of South African society were experiencing with no running water, no electricity, no sanitation, low pay and few prospects. The pressure begins to take its toll on her marriage to Petrus, who grows more abusive until now with two small children, she is forced to leave.

She goes to find her parents only to discover that they no longer live where she grew up and for a time her attempts to find them are fruitless. However as the apartheid government falls and free elections are conducted for the first time, South African media takes an interest in the young woman who’d suffered so much because of a division that was really, when it comes down to it, only skin deep.

This is Fabian’s first effort and it shows in places. Some of his scenes dwell on minutiae a bit too much, be it cinematographically or through dialogue. That said, he captures the atmosphere of apartheid-era South Africa nicely; I’ve read comments from South African natives who have said so and far be it for me to disagree.

The main attraction here is Okonedo. Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda, she proves that nomination was no fluke, turning in a performance that is nuanced and believable. Her Sandra shows the scars of being thought inferior to the point where she partially believes it, before she is forced to make a choice to save her kids from her abusive husband.

Neill and Krige, both tested veterans, perform pretty well although Neill is a bit over-the-top as the somewhat bombastic Abraham. There’s some scenery chewing going on, but not so much that it becomes irritating – it’s merely noticeable. Kgoroge  also turns in a fine performance, although he tends to be overshadowed in his scenes with Okonedo.

This is one of the tragic stories of apartheid, and that it hasn’t gotten virtually any coverage in the States is a bit of a crime. This might have been the movie to rectify that but it wasn’t picked up by a major or even a major indie distributor, getting barely any theatrical release in the States and relegated to cable where it can be found even as we speak. It is worth seeking out though if for no other reason for Okonedo’s performance.

WHY RENT THIS: The story is extremely moving. Okonedo gives a tremendous performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and a little bit of violence, but the thing to remember here is that the subject matter is on the adult side and might be too much for immature sensibilities.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won 19 international festival awards and was nominated for six mainstream awards.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tsotsi

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snow White and the Huntsman