Oscar-Nominated Films Tell Real-Life Workplace Stories

Now that the Academy Awards have all been awarded, the suspense has ended, as the movie Crash surprisingly took home Best Picture, and the eight-times nominated Brokeback Mountain earned its director, Ang Lee, the Best Director Oscar. This year was nonethless remarkable for the number of nominated movies that educated us about important social issues. As Workplace Fairness was most pleased to observe, the workplace was not excluded from Hollywood’s lens this year, as the movies North Country and Brokeback Mountain both featured the kinds of stories that are all too real to far too many workers.

In Workplace Fairness’ Oscar report, following in the tradition of features such as our Super Bowl report and Short-Changed, my colleague Eva Silverman reminds us that amid the flash and fame of the Oscars, which celebrates an industry of story-telling, it pays to step back and acknowledge the truth often reflected in fiction. What makes a story so powerful or an actor so believable in a role? What moves us to empathize with a film? Often it is the reflection of our own struggles, or the depiction of injustices we know to be truths in real life.

This year’s contenders included films about the trauma of and subsequent triumph over workplace harassment and the pain of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sadly, these themes are much more than storylines for the cinema. For all too many of us, these Oscar-nominated films portray the reality of our own experiences.

North Country is based on the 1984 landmark sexual harassment class-action case Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. The fictional Josey Aimes, played by Oscar nominee Charlize Theron, was “inspired by” the real-life story of Lois Jenson, a Minnesotan iron miner who faced horrible sexual harassment at her job. Frances McDormand’s character, Glory, was based on the real-life story of Patricia Kosmach, a union leader who ultimately joined the class-action depicted in the movie, but who died before seeing the results of her efforts.

According to a survey conducted by New York Women in Film and Television, North Country was voted the most important film for women to see in 2005, and it’s no wonder why. With as many as 1.6 million women participating in a sex discrimination class action suit against Wal-Mart, and over 35,000 charges of sexual harassment and sex discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, North Country mirrors the kind of unfairness in the workplace that women still face 15 years after the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. case was settled.

Workplace Discrimination in Hollywood

Hollywood itself isn’t exempt from workplace discrimination. According to a report entitled “The Celluloid Ceiling,” by the Fund for Women Artists, “women comprised only 16% of all executive producers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 grossing films of 2004.” And while 21% of the films released in 2004 employed no women for these top level jobs, not a single film failed to employ a man for at least one of these jobs.

The firm which represented the real-life Lois Jenson and her coworkers, NELA-member firm Sprenger + Lang of Minneapolis, now represents a class of screenwriters over 40 who are suing Hollywood studios for age discrimination. The lawsuit alleges that the studios “graylist” older writers, with statistics showing that 31% of all writers are over 50, yet they only hold 5% of the jobs. Statistics like this only make movies like North Country more relevant and compelling to today’s audiences.

The class-action case that spawned North Country was focused on sexual harassment, but as the movie showed us, working conditions for miners can be grueling and dangerous. While theater audiences were applauding Charlize Theron’s character Josey, twelve hard-working men died in a Sago coal mine in West Virginia. Reports show that an explosion trapped the miners underground and they eventually ran out of oxygen.

Even more atrocious than these twelve miners’ deaths is that they could have been prevented. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine for 208 violations in 2005, on top of 144 violations cited by the West Virginia Office of Health and Safety. While many of us think of mining as a historically obsolete occupation, it isn’t. In North Country, we witnessed the threat to female miners’ safety from their co-workers. Today’s miners, regardless of their gender, still risk their lives on an ongoing basis. It makes you wonder how much has changed.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Still a Threat

Another film that was up for Oscar nominations this year was Brokeback Mountain. Hailed as the story of two gay cowboys, Brokeback Mountain captures the pain and hardship of two men who fall in love and try to conform to a straight world while remaining true to themselves. The story focuses on two decades of their lives after they meet in an employment office and are sent out together as sheepherders. We all know what happens next—Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar find in each other more than they had expected, resulting in a lifelong connection and deep, but anguished love.

In a brief but poignant scene, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Jack returns to the employment office the following year looking for work. After his former boss (played by Randy Quaid), who knows Jack’s “secret,” calls him a ‘faggot’ and denies him the job, Jack leaves the office feeling deeply sickened and saddened—and without the job he was counting on. This short scene is important because it reflects the discrimination that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered workers face off the screen as well. Talented, dedicated, hard-working men and women are harassed and denied jobs and promotions everyday, all over the country.

While Brokeback Mountain portrays a fictional Wyoming in 1963, in a sizable majority of states, including Wyoming, Jack wouldn’t fare any better today. More than 40 years after the anguish depicted in Brokeback Mountain, there is still no federal law against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 17 states have passed laws prohibiting it. There has been progress since Jack Twist’s time: recent polling has shown that 85% of Americans oppose sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. But for those with bosses like Jack’s, there is often no legal remedy.

North Country and Brokeback Mountain: Both Movies Win!

North Country and Brokeback Mountain show us just how important it is to have state and federal laws that protect the rights of all employees. As we watched in North Country, Josey Aimes and her fellow female co-workers had a legal remedy against their employers for the sexual harassment they faced. (Workers who want to do even more to fight sexual harassment can join the movie’s activism campaign, Stand Up.) In contrast, Brokeback Mountain shows us how the absence of such laws prohibiting workplace harassment and discrimination empowers employers to keep gay employees out of the workplace.

Regardless of who won this year’s Oscars, movies like North Country and Brokeback Mountain remain winners for educating the public about the reality of workplace fairness issues. Movies have the potential not only to bring in record millions of dollars at the theaters, but to bring pertinent issues like workplace harassment and discrimination to the public.

North Country and Brokeback Mountain help us realize that great art often reflects reality and that reality remains riddled with injustices. More than that, they succeed in empowering thousands of people who connect the films to their own lives and who will take steps to create a more just workplace for themselves and others.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.