And then sometimes the forces of good win. Well, the good guys almost always win in The Movies, but not so much in real life.
Background: For a year in 1984-5, UK coal miners engaged in a massive industrial action that saw them walk out of work over government plans to close an enormous number of pits. (The industry was at the time nationalized and controlled from Westminster.) Most Americans and probably many younger Brits will likely be unaware of this important historical event (unless they’ve seen the film Billy Elliot, which, like Pride, was set amidst the strike); the closest American analogy might be the 1981 strike by federally employed air-traffic controllers in the US, which “ended” after only two days when President Reagan fired the striking ATCs. Both strikes were deep failures for the unions; the coal miners’ eventual acquiescence was seen as a victory for Thatcher and dealt an immense blow to organized labor in the UK (as the ATC strike did in the US). Many culture watchers consider Thatcher and Reagan’s successful union busting the beginning of the decline of the middle class in the UK and the US.
So who are the good guys who won here? What upbeat, positive, life-affirming, feel-good story is to be found amidst such a nightmare (apart from Billy Elliot)? How about this: Pride shares a little-known true story of a small, community-based London gay-and-lesbian organization who publicly supported the miners in their strike and raised money to help one small Welsh town that was badly impacted by having its menfolk out of work for so long. This is a film about small victories amidst larger defeats — though it’s a large victory, too, in the neverending war for individual freedom and self-determination — a film bursting with all sorts of happy-tears emotion about solidarity to be found among groups of people with seemingly little in common, about overcoming bigotry, about the joy of finding new friends and new colleagues in the most unexpected of places.
The strike has “only” been going on for four months when Mark (the wonderful Ben Schnetzer, unrecognizable from his previous turn in The Book Thief), a young man seemingly on the verge of exploding with activist fervor, decides, during London’s Gay Pride parade in June 1984, to start collecting money to send to striking miners. He sees their battle as much the same as the ones he and his gay friends have been fighting: for dignity, for self-respect, and for the respect of the society at large. Picketing miners are being beaten and bullied by the police just like gay activists are. To Mark’s mind, they are natural allies. But the national miners’ union wants nothing to do with them; being gay is still lower on the cultural totem pole than working a nasty, back-breaking job.
Stubborn Mark, though, won’t give up, and targets a tiny Welsh village — chosen pretty much at random — as the beneficiaries of the largesse of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). Pride is in many ways a comedy of culture clash, as Mark and his buddies bravely descend on what they presume to be a very conservative place — at a time when even London was less than wholly welcoming of out-and-proud homos — and find the miners and their families and friends a surprising mix of everything from wholehearted acceptance to wariness to outright hostility.
And Pride is very funny, treating bigotry as the risible position that it is and exploring — with smart, wise humor, and sometimes dramatic bittersweetness — the odd misconceptions that plenty people still hold even today about homosexuality and what it means to be gay. The cast is uniformly fantastic, from well-known names turning in reliably appealing performances — including Imelda Staunton (Maleficent, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!), Bill Nighy (I, Frankenstein, The World’s End), Paddy Considine (Honour, The World’s End), and Dominic West (John Carter, Arthur Christmas) — to up-and-comers we will certainly be seeing more from, including Schnetzer, Andrew Scott (best known so far as Moriarty in Sherlock), and George MacKay (The Boys Are Back, Defiance), who almost steals the movie as sweet Joe, a young man overwhelmed with delight to have discovered Mark’s crowd but still keeping the secret of his sexuality from his family.
This is one of those rare movies that gets absolutely everything right. It’s full of joy and life and, unexpectedly, even suspense, even if you know how the strike turns out. It will make you feel patriotic for Wales and leave you waving a rainbow flag. It’s a deeply satisfying reminder — which is always, always needed — that though change comes slowly, the arrow of history moves in the direction of liberation and kindness.