Set in an era when radium was sold as a cure-all miracle potion, RADIUM GIRLS is a new feature film co-directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher (THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS) and first-time director Ginny Mohler. The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is based on the true and never-before-dramatized story of women working at the American Radium factory in the 1920s ingesting radium-based paint in order to create luminous watch dials. As the women became ill and began dying in horrific ways, with bleeding gums and crumbling bones, a group came together in order to force American Radium to admit what they knew: that radium was poisonous.
RADIUM GIRLS, which stars Joey King (FARGO) and Abby Quinn (THE SISTERHOOD OF NIGHT), was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Ginny Mohler, with her co-writer Brittany Shaw, received a $100,000 Sloan First Feature grant at NYU for the script in 2013. As director Lydia Pilcher said at a panel after the film’s premiere screening on April 27, “having a Sloan grant was a big deal. Every time you can get your first cornerstone in, it gives confidence to other investors to come forward.”
What the “Radium Girls” did to challenge corporate control of the narrative of radium, and to stand up for workers, was revolutionary. Factory workers are usually the first people to be exposed to contaminants when they are in chemicals. Betsy Southerland, who worked for thirty years as a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, was on the post-screening panel that included Lydia Pilcher and Ginny Mohler. The Trump administration, she said, has repealed “so many of the workers’ protections, and so many of the toxic chemical prevention tests. That means our next round of workers—not years and years from now, next year—are going to be exposed to these very high levels [of toxic chemicals]. When that high level contamination gets back into the environment, into the things we eat, or the things we breathe, or the things we drink, the rest of the population is also going to be exposed.”
As radium has been used in harmful ways, it has also been used to save countless lives through radiation treatments for patients with cancer. For more, read Science & Film’s interview with Lydia Dean PIlcher which touches on the dual uses of radium through her two films: RADIUM GIRLS and THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.
The entire panel discussion is available to watch below.