Film Review: North Country

Posted: Oct 20, 2005 12:01 AM

Josey is Anita Hill.

From this statement, made by Josey Aimes’ lawyer (Woody Harrelson), one might be inclined to think that North Country tells the story of a young woman who becomes the willing pawn of a left-wing political group attempting an eleventh-hour judicial coup.

Fortunately, North Country’s actual plot is a lot more engaging and credible than Anita Hill’s testimony before Congress.

Josey Aimes’ (Charlize Theron) life is a study in feminine victimhood.

A horrific high school experience makes her a single mother at 16 and the shame of her blue collar parents. Fast forward 13 years and she’s now suffering punishing blows at the hands of another man (her husband). Her family still isn't supporting her though, implying that she probably had it coming by sleeping around.

Bruised and battered but refusing to take it anymore, Josey accepts a job at the local iron-ore mine that pays real money—men’s money—and begins to feel the empowerment that comes from paying her own way. She’s finally able to put food on the table and buy her kids a real home, but these necessities come at a higher price than just hard work.

As Josey quickly learns, most of her coworkers don’t want her or any other woman working there.

The men spare no effort to demonstrate their displeasure at the feminine invasion. Drawings of the women workers performing lewd acts appear on the mine walls. Sexual devices turn up in their lockers and in their lunchboxes. And they face a constant barrage of come-ons that are so physically intimidating, the threat of rape bubbles just beneath the surface. For months, Josey tries to keep her head down merely to get through the days, but when the harassment escalates to nauseating proportions and management refuses to step in, Josey decides to take the matter to court.

What does all this have to do with the Hill-Thomas matter? Not much on the face of it, except that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) intermittently cuts into to her working-class-woman story with references to and clips of Anita Hill accusing Justice Thomas of sexual harassment.

Josey’s cause, we are apparently supposed to infer, is as righteous as Anita Hill’s.

The problem with this tactic is that at least half the audience won’t remember Anita Hill as righteous and another third may not remember her at all.

The first issue with using Hill as a lynchpin is the evidence of history. If there were any validity to Hill’s accusations—which were occasioned by Democrat’s desperation to block Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas from being confirmed—some other woman surely would have come forward in the last 15-plus years to corroborate her testimony.

But even if one takes the Hill testimony at face value for argument’s sake, the two cases are still hardly analogous.

Anita Hill testified that Thomas bragged to her about the size of his genitals.

The women of Pearson mine are physically attacked on numerous occassions.

Anita Hill recounted a conversation involving the placement of unhygienic hair on a Coca-Cola can.

The women of Pearson mine find epithets against them smeared on the walls in feces they are forced to clean up.

Anita Hill claimed that Thomas repeatedly asked her out on dates.

The women of Pearson get covered in excrement when the men turn over the port-o-johns.

This is not to say that had any of Hill’s allegations proved true (and none ever have) that Clarence Thomas should not have been blocked from the highest bench in the land. But to compare a smattering of inappropriate comments to the professional hell the real women of North Country apparently endured is to undermine the uphill battle they faced. Josey Aimes had no lobby group supporting her or any op-ed writers demanding that her accusations be taken seriously.

In fact, when the details of her case are closely examined, another woman’s national ordeal comes to mind.

When Josey does finally decide to hire a lawyer and go to court, the opposition paints her as uneducated slut. Less attractive women with a vested interest in seeing Josey fail relish her public humiliation, hurling insults at her at community events.

Her demeanor and sexual history are used to impede her credibility. And until other women start coming out of the woodwork (or mineshaft as the case may be) to confirm that they too had to deal with on-the-job harassment, management insists she’s nothing but a trailer-trash liar. In light of all this, it seems it would be more appropriate to say that Josey is Paula Jones.

Nevertheless, North Country works because of the relationships behind the politicizing. Josie’s struggles with her father and her son create moments that even those who’ve never been propositioned on the job can appreciate. And even when it devolves into a maudlin courtroom scene that borrows unsuccessfully from A Few Good Men, strong performances from Theron and the always-impressive Frances McDormand save the film from becoming a sure-fire Lifetime channel staple (though, as the varieties of male abuse pile up, I couldn’t help thinking of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s bit: “If it’s television for women, how come a woman’s always getting beaten on that channel?”)

If North Country is even remotely representative of the events that took place in that northern Minnesota mine, the women laborers’ victory rightfully stands as a historical triumph. However, the feminist lobby’s attempted raid on the judiciary through Anita Hill rightfully stands as a national embarrassment.

No film, no matter how well-crafted, can revise that.