Rachel Feldman, former chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, knows firsthand the uphill battle women directors face. “I’ve heard all the excuses men and women make for not hiring women directors,” she told Deadline. She was one of the leaders of the movement to get the ACLU and the EEOC to investigate Hollywood’s discriminatory hiring practices, and now she’s in the biggest fight of her career: to direct a film based on the life of Lilly Ledbetter, the modern-day equal pay icon.
It sometimes takes decades to get a movie made, and there’s no formula for how it happens. But passionate commitment is a key ingredient in every successful project, and Feldman has plenty of that for hers. “Lilly’s story is of a determined woman, prepared to do what it takes for justice and fairness to prevail,” Feldman said. “Her story is the nexus of my personal, professional, and political passions, and this is the perfect moment for this film to be made.”
Getting it made, however, has been a tough five-year slog. She and Adam Prince have written a script for a movie titled Fair Fight that she said is “structured as a thriller, with an indomitable female character at its center and powerful forces who would like to shut her down at every turn. It’s not a conventional biopic.”
Feldman recently began working with Double Nickel Entertainment’s Jenette Kahn and Adam Richman to get the film produced, sourcing the financing and casting the movie. Double Nickel’s track record includes producing Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino; Andrew Lau’s The Flock, starring Richard Gere and Claire Danes; and Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow’s upcoming The Book Of Henry starring Naomi Watts, for Focus Features.
Kahn is something of a legend herself, having headed DC Comics for 27 years and becoming the first female president of a Time Warner division. In 2000, she received the Library of Congress’ Living Legends award for her contributions to America’s cultural heritage. And her own history drew her immediately to the Ledbetter project.
“We know there is shameful pay inequity in Hollywood,” she said. “But far more critically, women across the country earn only 78.6% of what men make for the exact same work. A vast number of women are the sole earners in their families and struggling to support them. Lilly Ledbetter is their champion and Fair Fight is today’s Norma Rae.”
Hollywood and rural Alabama of the 1950s — where Ledbetter grew up, on a dirt farm without electricity or running water — may not have much in common, but the struggles of their women working in male-dominated industries are not dissimilar. Ledbetter had been a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Alabama for nearly two decades, but it wasn’t until she retired in 1998 that she learned her male counterparts, many of whom had much less experience, were receiving considerably higher pay. She filed a gender bias lawsuit under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a federal jury awarded her $3.3 million. The trial judge, however, reduced the judgment to $300,000 to comport with the Title VII damages cap.
Goodyear, however, didn’t want to pay her. The company appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling, stating that under Title VII, she had to have filed her suit within 180 days of having received her first discriminatory paycheck – or in her case, more than a decade earlier.
The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 ruling upheld the appellate court’s ruling. Her only recourse now was to change the law. Fortunately, she’d soon come to have friends in high places: She’d met a young U.S. senator who was campaigning for the presidency, and he took up her cause, often mentioning her on the campaign trail. His name was Barack Obama, and when he was elected president, she rode with him on the train to Washington, D.C., and danced with him at the inaugural ball.
Once in office, the first major piece of legislation signed by Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which amended the Civil Rights Act so workers can sue within 180 days after receiving any discriminatory paycheck. Had the bill been in effect in 1998, she could have filed a complaint with the EEOC within six months of receiving her last paycheck, which she had done.
Today, Ledbetter is hoping that Feldman can bring her story to the big screen.
“When I was fighting for justice it never occurred to me that a law would be changed in my name,” Ledbetter told Deadline. “The pride I feel knowing that my personal struggle has gone on help other Americans is incredible, but few people really know the whole journey. It’s been my dream to have my story made into a movie because I believe that we can continue to affect the status quo through popular culture and I know in my heart of hearts that Rachel Feldman is the perfect filmmaker to bring it to life. Not only is Rachel incredibly talented and experienced, but she understands the complexity of my search for justice because she herself has experienced a parallel struggle in Hollywood.
“Fair is fair, whether you’re working in a tire factory or in the movie business. One might seem more glamorous, but discrimination – blocking an entire population because of their gender from thriving and making a living – must not be tolerated anywhere.”
Despite having helmed more than 50 episodes of network dramas and longform television movies, Feldman says she continues to be saddled with the first-time director label. “Antiquated, vestigial hiring practices that discriminate against women are as entrenched and pervasive as ever,” she said, but noted that today “they are just far more subtle and subversive. Producers have told me that actors only want to work with ‘auteurs,’ but why is a visionary gift exclusive to men, who are given opportunities all the time with little to no experience? It’s unconscionable that my mid-career, female colleagues and I have devoted our lives to our craft and are still invisible. This is nothing more than unconscious bias.”
Feldman just wrapped a short film she wrote and directed that stars The Leftovers‘ Amy Brenneman, with a crew that was 80% female including Nancy Schreiber, recipient of the 2017 American Society of Cinematographers President’s Award.
Recent events in politics, Feldman said, make films with social messages more important than ever. “I have a powerful script about a remarkable woman, a clear vision, and the desire to galvanize a movement that has just suffered a devastating loss. Lilly endured decades of emotional and physical toxicity, yet she was the first one in and the last one out of that factory every day for 20 years in order to feed her family. She was cheated out of the respect and the income a worker her level deserved for one reason only, her gender, but she knew what was right and she prevailed. All we need is the great actor to bring her to life.”
Despite the usual obstacles of working in a male-dominated industry, Feldman says she remains optimistic.
“I’m a Lilly,” she said. “I’ll never give up.”