Spooky season is upon us, and there’s no dearth of horror movies and TV shows to watch. But there’s a movie that’s haunted me more than the ghosts of Bly Manor or the Grand High Witch’s fanged-smile. Radium Girls is Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s historical drama about the young women hired to paint watch dials with radioactive material back in the 1920s — and died as a result.
Picture this: A row of factory workers, most of them teenage girls, sit at their workstations in a sparsely furnished room. Almost in unison, they lick their paintbrushes, dip them into pots filled with powdered radium mixed with water, and paint on the tiny numbers onto a watch dial so that they can glow in the dark. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Watching the scene feels like watching Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl HBO series: We the audience know how dangerous this all is, even as the women on-screen laugh and make small talk about their big plans for the weekend. Many of them will die in pain in the coming year. And the worst part? It all really happened.
Pilcher and Mohler’s film begins in 1925 with Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn), two sisters who work for the American Radium Factory in Orange, NJ. From the start, you get the sense something’s off — their older sister Mary, also a dial painter, died three years previously from a mysterious illness, and now Jo’s starting to get similar symptoms. First, her teeth come loose, then start to fall out one by one. Her jaw swells, and her bones ache. Concerned, Bessie asks the factory foreman to send a doctor, who shames Jo into silence by telling her she has syphilis. It’s all part of ploy on behalf of the company: Gaslight any women who complain so they don’t make a fuss as you continue to put their lives at risk, knowing full well the nefarious consequences of radium exposure.
Much of Pilcher’s work as a director illuminates lesser-known events in history through the lens of the women who helped shape them. Just last month, her film A Call To Spy, about a network of women spies operating in France during World War II, premiered on VOD. Radium Girls is no different, but it does hold a special kind of urgency in a time when labour and environmental protections are being rolled back for greed and profit.
“We were thinking a lot about the water in Flint, Michigan,” Pilcher told Refinery29 in a phone interview ahead of Radium Girls’ October 23 VOD release. “It’s interesting now because we’re releasing the movie at a very rarefied moment. This idea of a corporation that denied science, a corporation that was telling you radium was good for you and was making profits hand-over-foot from all of this, is something that also makes the story quite interesting in the age of COVID.”
Though Bessie and Jo are based on composites of real people, the story itself is rooted in truth. Radium dial painting started gaining traction around 1917 in the United States, to provide watches that soldiers heading off to the trenches of Europe could read in the dark. There were three main factories in the United States dedicated to this work, but the most famous is the one in Orange, NJ, where Radium Girls is set. In the 1920s, a group of five women led by plant worker Grace Fryer decided to sue American Radium. For several years, the “radium girls,” as they were dubbed in the press, battled a company determined to let the proceedings drag on for as long as possible. The reason? They knew many of the women wouldn’t live out the decade. Indeed, by 1928, when the suit finally went to court, two were confined to their beds. Still, the women prevailed, and a jury awarded damages of $10,000 to each (£7,657) (roughly worth £114,855 in 2020), along with a $600 (about £6,891 now) a year payment for medical expenses. The case forced a reckoning within American industry, as workers realised they could sue their employers for unsafe working conditions, forcing the latter to better regulate potential dangers. And yet, as narrative text at the end of the movie reminds us, radium paint continued to be used well into the 1960s, putting countless lives at risk.
Given the stakes, it’s remarkable that these achievements have been largely forgotten. Pilcher says she knew next to nothing about the events depicted in the film before reading Mohler and Brittany Shaw’s script.
“I had been looking for stories about environmental justice or climate change, and when I read this story, it just spoke to me,” she said. “It was written in a profoundly emotional way. These two sisters are so different, but they’re dreamers, and this situation at the factory becomes a real coming of age for them.”
Intertwined with the plotline about radium poisoning is Bessie’s rising political consciousness, helped along by dashing young communist Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). She represents a generation of young women who, newly armed with the power to vote, felt compelled to take a stand against injustice, and eventually played an active role in shaping the burgeoning labour movement in the United States. That too echoes our current reality, where many of our foremost climate and social justice activists, like Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin, or Flint, Michigan’s Mari Copeny, are young women.
“There’s a radium girls play that’s being performed in high schools around the country., and we get tons of mail from young girls who are just dying to see this movie. I think it’s because it’s about teenage girls taking action, and that’s something that’s very empowering. In a world where it often feels like we are helpless and we’re forced to be socially distant from each other, we actually have to sort of remember that we have voices and our voices can be our power. I hope this movie encourages them to go all the way.”