Title:  North Country

Release Date:  2005

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 126 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Warner Brothers, Participant

Director; Writer: Niki Caro;  wr. Micahel Seitzman; Book by Clara Bingham: Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law

Producer: Nana Greenwald

Cast:   Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek

Technical: full widescreen Panavision

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: Sexual harassment in the workplace


I moved from No. Virginia to Minneapolis Labor Day weekend 1997 in a corporate relocation partly motivated by avoidance of potential conflict of interest associated with my book. I remember those first months in Minnesota well. On Columbus Day weekend I took a car trip up to the source of the Mississippi River, Bemidji, and then followed Route 2 over to the Iron Range country, starting with Chisolm and leading to the town of Virginia. With open pit mines carved out of the Laurentian plateau, the semi-mountainous area has an other worldly look that could fit in a science fiction film. (The appearance continues into Canada, even into southern Quebec where there are huge asbestos mines.)  Not far away on Route 53 there is a three-way subcontinental divide, separating Lake Superior, the Mississippi River, and the Hudson Bay. On Labor Day weekend 1999 I would actually visit some of the open pit mines, a weekend where I stayed at the Burnside Lodge in Ely.


All of this provides a spectacular on-location setting for a powerful drama recounting the class action suit that would change sexual harassment law permanently. The factual case was Jensen v. Eveleth Mines, in 1984. The story is somewhat fictionalized and apparently moved up to 1989. Today, employers are required to investigate allegations of sexual harassment even if they believe them to be unfounded


Most of the story is told in flashbacks from the courtroom. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a single welfare mother who goes to work in the iron mines to get better money. It is rough work, only opened to women in 1975.  Early on there is a dinner joke about her becoming a lesbian.  Then, she is forced to submit to a vaginal examination by a male company physician, to make sure she is not “pregnant.” (“You’re clear!” he says. I am told that telephone companies back in the 1970s would ask female job applicants to tell them their menstrual periods.) There are other rougher women who work there, but Josie has an even harder time standing up to the men who don’t want her there. After all, times are getting hard with cheap foreign steel and layoffs, and she is taking away jobs that could go to men supporting families. (As a single gay man I have sometimes encountered the jab that I am taking a job away from a man with a family, too.) The harassment becomes brutal, with dildos in lunch pails, excrement smudged into epithets in the women’s lavatory, and one incident where a porter potty is turned over with her in it. She is accused of tempting other men and busting up families. She eventually decides to sue because she knows she is right, even if she is bucking the heckling protecting the comfort zone of many men. Her father stands up for her at a union meeting.


She needs to get two other women to join her for a class action suit, and one of these women is Glory (Frances McDormand), who is dying rapidly of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At a critical point in the trial, we learn that her son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) was born out of a classroom rape committed by a high school teacher when she was 16 (although 16 is the age of consent in Minnesota) and apparently never reported. There are other roadblocks along the way, as when she is summoned to downtown Minneapolis (quite well photographed, as I lived there for six years) and told she must resign, which she refuses.


Of course, protecting the rights of women does potentially cost something in the workplace when companies are already stressed financially. Issues like pregnancy leave and equal pay for equal work will come up. Doing the right thing is not always easy in a business society of laissez-faire and the pressures of extreme capitalism.



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