Radium Girls is a 2018 American drama film directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler and starring Joey King and Abby Quinn. Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner serve as executive producers. Originally screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, the film was supposed to be released to North American theaters in early April 2020, with a wider release later in the month. The release has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 23, 2020, the film was released in select theaters and virtual cinemas.
For those who follow my blog, this is a subject I have often posted about, environmental activists, like Rachel Carson, Environmental Heroine and DDT, author of “Silent Spring”; or Fannie Farmer and Safe Foods when Harvey Wiley’s “Poison Squad” and Sinclair Lewis’ Concrete Jungle” was published; or Clean Water and Food Heroine Ellen Swallow Richards with the “Food and Drug Act.” This is exactly why we need regulations to uncover and outlaw when profits over people continue being an issue.
NOW read on to see how long this took to end the practice at the American Radium factory in New Jersey. When Jo (Quinn) loses a tooth, Bessie’s (King) world is turned upside down as a mystery slowly unravels. She discovers a corporate cover ups.
Starring Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Joey King and Little Women‘s Abby Quinn, Radium Girls follows teen sisters who dream of Hollywood and Egyptian pyramids as they paint luminous watch cover-up and, in a radical coming-of-age story, Bessie and the Radium Girls decide to take on American Radium. The national sensation following the case of the Radium Girls ultimately led to significant and lasting impact in the area of workplace health and safety and the study of radioactivity.
“At its heart, the Radium Girls’ story is an inspiration for people everywhere to question the facts we take for granted,” said producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and filmmaker Ginny Mohler. “It’s as relevant today as it was in the 1920s.” “Radium Girls is a powerful retelling of a dark chapter in American history that illuminates what it takes for the powerless to stand-up to power,” said Elizabeth Sheldon of Juno Films. “We are proud to add this film to our roster of films by and about women.”
Said Tomlin and Wagner: “Radium Girls” is a celebration of everyday women finding their strength in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Joey King and Abby Quinn deliver stand-out performances that explore the intimate lives of their characters and what it took for these women to piece together the obscured elements of wrongdoing in order to understand the scope of a larger injustice.“
Despite taking place in the 1920s, Radium Girls feels particularly relevant in these times when the current administration has devoted itself to rolling back protections for workers; Profits over People! Although its low-budget cinematic execution feels a bit lacking at times, the film fulfills a vital function with its dramatization of an important chapter in America’s history of labor reform.
The story, which features both real-life figures and composite characters, begins in 1925, when sisters Bessie (Joey King, who proved her acting bona fides with her Emmy-nominated turn in Hulu’s The Act) and Jo (Abby Quinn, After the Wedding) are working as “dial painters” at the American Radium Factory in Orange, New Jersey. The two young women — whose older sister, who also worked at the factory, died three years earlier — are part of an all-female workforce earning minuscule wages by painting radium on watch dials to make them glow. They have been instructed to lick the paintbrushes to produce a finer point, a seemingly innocuous habit that, unbeknownst to them, will ultimately prove fatal, as does the propensity of some of them to also paint their faces and nails with radium after work hours.
The film establishes the craze for radium occurring at the time, with scenes showing the substance being promoted as a miracle cure and advertisements for the healing properties of such products as “radioactive water.”
This is where we meet the corrupt, money over people and the cover-up tactics they use. Our own Dept. of Energy Hanford Nuclear Reservation clean-up had to be sued in order for the Dept. of Energy to be called to task to protect the workers under their watch. Department of Labor and Industries was also on the take and had doctors who did their bidding by a million and one excuses as to the sickened workers. Investigative reporting uncovered the years of cover-ups. Here, in Radium Girls, they find blame in the workers themselves and it took a consumer protection group to get involved to stop the practices used.
When Jo starts to feel sickly and her teeth begin falling out, the concerned Bessie persuades the factory’s owner (John Bedford Lloyd) to send the company doctor to check her out. The doctor (Neal Huff) promptly diagnoses Jo’s condition as syphilis, despite the fact that she’s a virgin.
As her sister’s condition worsens and other co-workers begin showing symptoms of disease, Bessie — who has become more radicalized as a result of a romantic relationship with a young communist (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) — meets with the female leader of a local consumer organization (Cara Seymour). The latter informs her of the dangers of radium and persuades her to exhume the body of her late sister to prove that she died as a result of their toxic workplace. Jo is told that she probably only has two years to live, while Bessie has only avoided this fate because she had forgone licking the paint brushes that caused her sister’s illness.
The ensuing dispute leads to a court battle in which the testimony of a dying company executive (Scott Shepherd, in a powerful performance) proves crucial in more ways than one. For those not already familiar with the real-life events, suffice it to say that there are many harrowing twists and turns.
Co-directors Pilcher and Mohler, working from a script by Mohler and Brittany Shaw (virtually all of the creative team, which includes executive producers Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, are women), occasionally let the narrative get bogged down. Despite the stylistic glitches, Radium Girls proves engrossing, thanks to its powerful real-life tale and the excellent performances by leads King and Quinn, who make us fully care about their characters’ fates. Onscreen text just before the end credits informs us that radium paint continued to be used until the 1970s, with a chilling final line reminding us of the devastating human toll it took.