Pride: a queer tale of class struggle

Oct 30, 2014

As the Pride title cards roll, the classic union march “Solidarity Forever” echoes off the screen accompanying the footage of riots intercut with smug Tory politicians with which every film set in Thatcherite Britain is obliged to begin.

It was surreal to hear the old socialist hymn at a preview screening just moments after learning of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam’s demise, and it set the tone for what was to follow.

The year is 1984, and we meet a handsome, nervous young man named Joe (George MacKay) as he spills off a train that has delivered him from posh Bromley in London’s south-east to the heart of Old Compton Road and the annual gay pride parade. Despite his determination to fly under the radar, he has half a huge banner thrust into his hands by a man named Mike (Joseph Gilgun), whose dropkick friends have left him in the lurch.

Joe swallows his shame and marches, observing the queers and their haters in turns of delight and terror. Mike’s mates show up, and invite the nervous and painfully middle-class Joe to a house party.

We seem to be treading a well-worn queer cinema path here: young, white, middle-class gay man from the 1980s has sexual awakening, heads to pride parade, has conflicting yet ultimately good time. Yawn, right?

Except there is an off-beat energy to Pride from the first frame. This is not just a film about one gay boy, although Joe’s story is well-told and forms a touching underscore to the main plot.

Joe falls in with a group of rag-tag homosexuals, including some wonderful and fleshed-out queer female characters, and witnesses the foundation of a new movement at the hands of the passionate young Mark (Ben Schnetzer) – Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).

Mark adopts the class struggle of the picketing miners in rural Britain as his own. And this is where the film reveals its true intentions – this is a story about class, about culture, about economics, and about what happens when the oppressed organise against the oppressor, rather than devolving into tribalism.

The gays meet the miners, and the miners meet the gays. The scenes that follow could have been schmaltzy, but they are written and played with such tenderness and quirk that they are utterly charming, screamingly funny and unbearably awkward at the same time. It is a bit hammy, but it is adorable watching UK screen vets Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton play the elders of a small Welsh community and trying to overcome ingrained prejudice to stand together against a common enemy.

Pride is high-energy and emotionally thrilling, with colour and movement pervading every scene, whether in the London gay bar or the Welsh miners’ social club. Director Matthew Warchus is careful not to let one group be “saviour” to the other – a very queer Footloose-style dance awakening is balanced by a spontaneous and moving Welsh ballad, each group learning about the other with the joy, uncertainty and pain of a new relationship.

This finesse in the emotional build-up results in highly satisfying payoffs late in the film. Only one particular revelation in the third act struck me as an overreach, but the characters and stories we’ve become invested in receive resolution – some triumphant, some tragic, all real. Pride is based on a true story, and Warchus remains faithful to its events.

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The magic of the film comes from its use of the lens of class to examine sexuality. By having the gay and lesbian characters care about something outside themselves and their community, we see the queer struggle cast in brilliant and satisfying new shades.

It is also satisfying to see real political organisation depicted on screen. Regardless of their differences, the gays and the miners are the antithesis of Lady Thatcher’s assertion that society is dead and we are only individuals. Whether preserved in centuries of tradition, or forged in the heat and light of building your own family from the ashes of parental rejection, these characters know what it is to stand together; it’s shocking that it’s so difficult to conjure that sense of community in the present day.

Pride is an entertaining, hilarious, touching and important film which I cannot recommend enough.


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