I’m going to be honest here: The same thing that drew me to Pride had me dreading my experience of the film. Dreading it. I saw a set of .gifs on Tumblr, a showy scene where a queer activist tells a mostly closeted kid that a big part of queer history was reclaiming the slurs used against the community and using them against the oppressor. True, I suppose… but for a bunch of activists holed up in an apartment above a gay book store, everybody seemed so clean. They looked like characters from an ensemble comedy, or “punk” retrospectives like CBGB, where even the most strung out and miserable dregs of the scene were presented like automatons from a ride at Walt Disney World. I thought, based entirely on a series of images that’d been taken out of context, that I was in for a glib view of history, a film informed by the Vaseline-smeared lens of cinematic uplift.
And I wasn’t entirely wrong. Pride is big and showy, an ensemble drama that’s more about culture clash than it should be, because that’s what happens with the passage of time: Corporations decide to fund and distribute a film about a socialist movement, the brief and unlikely union of red queers and mining unions, and a big deal must be made of gay vs. straight, London vs. Whales, young vs. old. Before a camera, with the issue’s many moving parts streamlined to make it all fit within the confines of a single motion picture, the people who were part of the movement become larger than what they stood for. It’s easy, after all, to talk about heroes. It’s uncomfortable, however, for a state-funded film to speak of revolution. A film like this has to frame the battle as won. A film needs resolution, and a film about queer and worker politics needs a resolution that says things got better so we can feel better about the world we live in when we leave the theater.
So Pride isn’t about revolution or politics, despite its trappings. A group of lesbian and gay activists, seeking to stick it to Margaret Thatcher, figure out that governmental policies effecting Welsh miners are just as oppressive as the policies they face at the outset of the AIDS epidemic. Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) forms the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign and, along with his comrades at the book store, starts raising money for the strike fund of the first miner’s hall that will welcome them. A garbled connection over the phone sends LGSM to the village of Onilwyn, where they are begrudgingly accepted because they’ve come with a good bit of coin. LGSM starts winning over the majority of the miners with the support of union leaders Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Dai Donovan (Paddy Constantine), miner’s wives (led by Jessica Gunning), and their dancing. But there’s a homophobic faction of villagers who are willing to damage their own cause so long as it sends the gays and lesbians back to London where they belong.
The year-long strike and its inner-workings are Zola’s Germinal brought to life, but Zola is dour and sad and suggests that coal miners—all workers, really—will be crushed endlessly under the boot heel of the bourgeois. Pride is a crowd-pleaser, though, all big hair and synth-driven soundtrack, punctuated by the occasional protest song or bit of danger. The first thirty minutes or so feature a lot of hard looks and hocked loogies from the breeder set. Bill Nighy gives a walking tour and recites poetry. Dominic West has an elaborate dance number where he leaps onto a table and shouts about how he misses disco. The old women of the village have a hell of a time learning about gay culture. There are two coming out narratives and two AIDS narratives, all of which suggests a story better suited to a TV miniseries. But while the whole enterprise should feel overstuffed and exhausting, Pride manages to be very fun, a heaping spoonful of sugar to go along with the biter knowledge that the 1980s weren’t all that enjoyable, music and fashion and community aside.
That fun is tempered by Pride’s treatment of history as a closed book with some of its chapters excised. In the opening information dump, a newscaster mentions Thatcher’s plans to cut jobs, but goes into no detail about how a general strike works or what it entails. It looks like a long game of bingo over a few pints. Thatcher’s anti-gay policies are also at the fringes of the film, but here we’re operating with the blind faith that LGSM’s handshake deal with the miner’s union will pay off somehow. Everybody but LGSM, it seems, is living it up, as if government oppression was a thing only seven or eight queer people in all of London wanted to deal with. There again is the problem of framing this material as a film and not something longer and looser, a thing that can contract and expand and breathe. Nowhere is this more apparent than how the film presents feminist issues as an odd collection of notions to be laughed at (what, worry for your safety as a gay woman in a town full of leering miners?) or nodded to in knowing solidarity (yes, yes, sex can be enjoyable for women!). Also odd is the miners’ stated goal of getting everything back to normal, but that’s a movie revolution for you: All of the red propaganda filling the screen is a prop, “authentic,” but not authentic.
While there’s nothing particularly striking about the visuals of Pride, I’m a union baby through and through—I was raised singing “Solidarity” and get misty-eyed when I see large-scale demonstrations in the movies, even if the people marching are too clean to suggest the kind of real-life suffering that engenders public action. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Pride ends at the 1985 London Pride Parade, where LGSM are told they’ll have to march in the back. Nobody wants politics anymore. Everybody wants to party. Mark cries bullocks into his megaphone, but the attitude of the parade organizers and the film they appear in are the same, at heart. All of that political stuff is hard to handle. Can Bill Nighy recite another poem, please?
Pride. With Bill Nighy (Cliff), Imelda Staunton (Hefina Hedon), Dominic West (Jonathan Blake), Paddy Constantine (Dai Donovan), Andrew Scott (Gethin Roberts), George MacKay (Joe Copper), Ben Schnetzer (Mark Ashton), and Jessica Gunning (Siån James). Directed by Matthew Warchus, from a screenplay by Stephen Beresford.