Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
No one knows exactly what happened to Karen Silkwood, the labor union activist and nuclear plant facility worker who tried to out her company’s criminally hazardous working conditions before she was killed in a mysterious car accident in 1974.
Silkwood was a brave whistleblower who joined and testified for her plant’s union when she realized she and her fellow workers were susceptible to plutonium contamination—and eventually its side effect, cancer. She reportedly had a file of evidence documenting the plant's unsafe working conditions that caused contamination, and was on her way to deliver it to a New York Times reporter when she died at the age of 28. The file was nowhere to be found at the scene of her death, and other evidence renders the cause of her death inconclusive; marks on her car suggested she may have been driven off the road by someone but the coroner also found nearly twice the recommended dosage of the sedative Quaalude in her blood.
To many, Karen Silkwood posthumously became a martyr for her activism, but her employers at Kerr-McGee insinuated that she was a madwoman who had planted the plutonium in her home and workplace in order to implicate them.
If you’re looking for concrete answers, you won’t get them from Mike Nichols' 1983 biopic Silkwood, which stars Meryl Streep in the leading role. But the film does give Silkwood a new platform and voice for her mission—and also accomplishes the nuanced portrayal that would have been the film's biggest hurdle. Nichols undoubtedly sympathized with Silkwood, but not with some showy us-versus-them plot in which the heroine successfully takes down the evil corporation (telling Silkwood's story would inevitably mean a tragic ending).
This was one of Streep’s earlier roles, but she was already a billable star with two Oscar wins (for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice). She transformed completely for the role of Karen Silkwood—mullet haircut, sleeveless shirts, and all—but she went beyond costume and made Karen feel like a woman of her time (the 1970s) and place (Oklahoma).
In what may be one of her best performances, Streep fully commits to a complicated portrayal of a woman who struggled to balance work and family, a woman who became tunnel-visioned and has her own imperfections, but paid an unfair price in her quest for justice. Silkwood, which screens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 3, is perhaps the most commercial and entertaining yet most difficult to root for among the films featured in the upcoming repertory series Women at Work: Labor Activism.
Nichols' filmography suggests that he was interested in uplifting women’s voices. He and the great Elaine May (who directed The Heartbreak Kid) were a famous pair of comedic collaborators and she later wrote two of Nichols' films, The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). The subjects of Nichols' films are telling, too: they often dealt with the inner lives of women, whether in comedic style (as in 1988’s Working Girl), or the more serious Silkwood, which was scripted by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.
Ephron and Arlen strayed from giving Silkwood a big moral message about the regulation of nuclear facilities. As its title suggests, Silkwood is first and foremost concerned with Silkwood the person, yet it avoids overpraising or being condescending toward its flawed protagonist, who, as a modern viewer will be especially keen to note, displays a giant confederate flag above the bed she shares with her boyfriend (Kurt Russell). Silkwood is a lower-class white woman from the South, and that comes with its own complicated history, which the film doesn’t really touch. Instead, we see glimpses of her personal relationships. A detour to Texas shows that Karen has been a bit of a neglectful mother (and in trying to make up for it, a neglectful employee as well), while her home life in Oklahoma shows that she can be short with her loved ones, such as her lesbian roommate, Dolly (Cher in an understated dramatic performance). (Also noteworthy is that Dolly's sexuality isn't the entirety of her persona, not is it fleshed out for caricature.)
While Silkwood is shown to have plenty of flaws, we’re also forced to reckon with the fact that she isn't colored as the villain that Kerr-McGee tried to pin her as. Silkwood is given a sharp, inquisitive mind, which leads her to look into a contaminated truck at her workplace and snoop around an employee’s office where she believes X-rays are being illegally altered. And if she’s been disregardful in certain areas of her personal life, she’s still shown as someone who will step up for more pressing issues (in this case, her work to ensure workers' safety), like when she urges a possibly contaminated woman to request a nasal smear. "Make sure they’re telling you the truth," Silkwood tells her. "‘Cause there are a lot of liars out here."
Seeking the truth was Silkwood’s priority, one she fought for and tragically died for. Given the amount of plutonium that already contaminated her body, Silkwood would have likely died of cancer, but her death came much sooner and while she was trying to ensure others wouldn't suffer the same fate. Even if a nuclear plant is unfamiliar territory for many viewers, the struggle for workers rights and the well-being of a woman's body is still of noteworthy relevance.
Karen Silkwood might be a bit of an anti-heroine, but it's nearly impossible not to be moved by her mission, so poignantly captured in Silkwood.