The year is 1984. Miners in the UK, angered by the government’s plans to close more than 70 coal mines (the coal industry had been nationalized following World War II), went on a strike that would last almost a year. The miners manned the picket lines every day, while back in town their wives strove to keep the community together, making the most of what donations of food and clothing they could find, hoping to keep the government from starving them out. If that sound like a familiar setting for a film, perhaps you’re thinking of Billy Elliot, but instead of merely using a place and time to tell a story, Pride actually tells the story of that place and time, particularly of the unorthodox union of two groups who just might be able to help each other out.
You see, miners weren’t the only ones struggling in 1984. Laws banning homosexuality had been repealed in the previous decades, but the UK still had laws on the books treating LGBT individuals differently than heterosexuals (including a different age of consent) and same-sex marriage was still thirty years away. But more than the legal situation, LGBT individuals (known at the time just as “lesbians and gays”) faced ostracism, hatred, fear, and cruelty at the hands of those opposed to their cause, all with the threat of HIV/AIDS looming in the background. It’s in this climate, and following a Gay Pride march, that Mark Ashton, a young, gay activist from London, watches a news report on the striking miners and is struck by the realization that the two groups have something in common.
Together with a group of friends involved in the LGBT rights movement, he founds Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, LGSM, raising money to help feed and clothe their fellow British citizens who are also fighting for their rights against the government. However, when the national union turns them down they decide to take their money directly to a mining town. They call every town on the map and are hung up on as soon as they mention their group’s name. Eventually they find a village in Wales willing to work with them, and they pile into a van to bring their donation. To say they get a chilly welcome is putting it mildly, and while there are a few friendly faces the majority of the town’s opinions range from mild disgust to outright hostility.
Pride’s story unfolds largely as one would expect, particularly if you’re familiar with the history of the miners’ strike. The town is slowly won over by LGSM, first on an individual basis and then more generally, while a few hard cases refuse to bend their beliefs. We get a variety of anecdotes on both sides, from the closeted gay youth whose parents discover where he’s been spending his free time, to the young, alpha-male miner who asks one of the gays for dance lessons after watching him impress the ladies with his moves, and eventually HIV rears its ugly head. And in the end the miners lose, of course, and the pits are closed anyway. But the predictability of the plot does not lessen the film’s impact, and it allows the individual moments in the film to shine on their own, giving them a timeless quality despite the very context of the film.
The film’s cast is truly inspired, whether portraying real people or fictional creations. Ben Schnetzer shines as Mark Ashton, the charismatic leader of LGSM, giving the film a spark and a fire that carries throughout and it’s easy to see how someone with the right attitude and drive can inspire many. Dominic West is also a highlight, playing Jonathan Blake, one of the first people diagnosed with HIV in the UK, as is George MacKay as Joe Copper, LGSM’s youngest member and a newcomer to the gay pride movement. The miners’ side is dominated by Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton as town leaders. Nighy brings a soft-spoken fragility to the film, as someone who wants to support LGSM but who is afraid to speak up. Staunton, on the other hand, is a spitfire, not only welcoming LGSM with open arms but going out of her way to make sure the rest of the town follows her example. She’s almost the mother hen to the town and to LGSM, and she gives the audience some cheer worthy moments as she fights for LGSM like they were her children. Also standing out from the ensemble cast are Paddy Considine as the town representative who first makes contact with LGSM and is forced to confront his prejudices, and Jessica Gunning as Sian James, a housewife and volunteer who would eventually become a Member of Parliament for the district.
Pride has almost the perfect balance of humor and drama, a balance difficult to find in these sorts of “dramedies.” And while the laughs are plentiful, including many awkward moments between the groups, they are never at the expense of either group. Rare is the film that can make you laugh and cry with the same level of overwhelming emotion, but even the best of those can rarely make you do both at the same time as Pride does. Writer Stephen Beresford has crafted a script that is entertaining and enjoyable without losing the sense of the story’s importance, and director Matthew Warchus has a deft touch that brings the screenplay to life. For instance, we’ve all seen scenes of parents rejecting children upon discovering they are gay, so instead of showing the yelling and the anger we see one slow, off focus pan across the scene with no dialogue, and the film instead focuses on the aftermath and the effects of their words and actions rather than the words and actions themselves. In the same way, we don’t need to see the beating of a gay character to witness its impact or to understand how common such things were.
I have to praise Pride for its use of music. The film opens with a rendition of “Solidarity Forever,” and is punctuated with other pro-union songs including Joe Hill’s “There Is Power in a Union.” At the same time it’s countered with the pop music of the era from groups like Queen and the Pet Shop Boys. It really shows the power of music to bring people together, whether LGSM showing off their dance moves to help the miners let loose and relax or as a sign of solidarity and pride as the town sings “Bread and Roses.” And the film’s use of music echoes LGSM’s as they organize the “Pits and Perverts” benefit concert (taking its name from a derogatory newspaper headline about the unlikely alliance) to raise money for the town.
In many ways, the movie is all about “pride,” both in its ability to bring people together and to tear them apart. The uniting factor between LGSM and the miners is the sense of pride they both share. It is this pride, pride in themselves, who they are and what they do, that enables them to continue fighting for their rights and for what they believe in against a seemingly insurmountable foe (in this case, Margaret Thatcher). It’s what helps you to get back up when you’ve been beaten down, it’s what brings people together and creates a sense of community. But can also be what gets in your way, a stumbling block to seeing beyond yourself. It’s not enough, the film seems to be saying, to have pride in yourself and in your community, you have to take pride in others, in outsiders, and make your pride about inclusion and not exclusion. As a character in the film says, it doesn’t make any sense to support gay rights but not workers’ rights, or to support civil rights but not women’s rights.
Throughout Pride couldn’t help thinking how far we’ve come in the last thirty years (my entire lifetime) and yet how little some things have changed. Gay marriage may be legal in parts of the UK and the US, but hatred and prejudice are still widespread. The miners and LGSM may have come together, but as a world we still seem more divided than ever. (And through it all, Rupert Murdoch owned “news” agencies continue to make money by fanning the flames that divide us.) It’s hard for me to imagine a situation like this here in the US, where a traditionally conservative group would ever accept the aid of an LGBT group. With so much talk of “agendas” and worrying that others might take advantage of a situation, it seems like we might even have taken a step backwards in the last 30 years. And in the end, the miners lost and the pits were closed.
But at the same time, the miners may have lost but the LGBT community won, not by defeating the miners or by monopolizing the airtime with their agenda at the exclusion of all other causes but by creating allies. The Labour Party, a year after the events of the film, voted to support LGBT rights due to overwhelming support from the mineworkers union, a big step for the cause. Pride shows us that some battles may be lost and some battles may be won, but all causes worth supporting are worth fighting for, and fighting for together. It’s about solidarity in the force of overwhelming odds, about man against the machine. But the machine is not always the big bully with all the power, sometimes it’s the prejudices inside us and the very system that helped create them. And while the world will always need people who are willing to stand on street corners with megaphones and buckets to raise awareness and money for a cause, it also needs little movies like this to remind us why those people stand on those corners and remind us that we shouldn’t just drive on by thinking that their issues don’t concern us.