A Century of Cinema About Labor, One Film For Each Decade
“You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your workingman expects something is his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges!” — Leland to Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)
Perhaps 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution makes this a perfect year to celebrate a century of populist cinema. What follows are arguably the best films about labor and the working class to come out in each of the last ten decades (one for each decade). But what makes a great film about laborers? Not stridence, not pedantry, not necessarily calling us to action (films almost never and perhaps cannot do this), but instead deep empathy with private human struggles behind public struggles against corrupt capitalists. A great labor film will almost always have a strong female component, because there’s rarely better drama than a woman deciding between compromise (and often the continuation of her family) and bold action. You could do a lot worse than using your Labor Day weekend (which can be any weekend) to binge this stroll through a century of wrestling with oppression…prepare for films by Eisenstein, Chaplin, Ford, Kazan, and some even better films.
Strike (Stachka) (1925) directed by Sergei Eisenstein
If your film history class’s only foray into Soviet master filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was Battleship Potemkin, you may be surprised at the relative nuances of Eisenstein’s other major effort from the same year, Strike. While Potemkin is a straightforward journey of sailors from depradation and oppression to revolt, Strike is a twistier tale of “normal” Russian workers who, after rebelling against the czar, are beset upon by spies and provocateurs. Perhaps the first film ever to shine a serious light on the human toll of a prolonged labor strike: the hunger, the domestic strife, the understandable conflicts between class-conscious men and women. Makes a naked case for Communism, which will always make its appeal both limited and heart-rending.
Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin
By the time Chaplin finally made his first film since City Lights (1931), the world seemed to have passed him by, so that’s exactly what the film is about. Ostensibly “silent” (with ample sound effects), the film both harkens back to Chaplin’s empathy with progressive movements of the 1920s and, especially compared with most Hollywood early-sound-era fantasies, finds itself in tune with the unique despair of the 1930s. Chaplin’s Tramp gets himself caught in gears and in a lot of other labor-related mishaps; when he is mistaken for someone waving a Communist flag, he’s thrown in a mental hospital. Perhaps Chaplin could be charged with having his Communism and eating it too, but no one questions Chaplin’s deep moralism, or his ability to wring humor from pathos. (We do question, however, his attraction to teenage girls.)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) directed by John Ford
Wherever a cop’s beatin’ a guy, wherever a list of labor films is…this film’ll be there. Oddly, Hollywood’s most celebrated director (for example, its inaugural winner of the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award), John Ford, never made another one like it, and eventually established a reputation as a conservative. We might think that Grapes of Wrath came together so quickly — from Steinbeck’s excellent novel to screen in less than a year — that Ford was in a fever dream and barely knew what he was doing, but that belies the film’s extraordinary feeling of aching history, the expert (too expert?) expropriation of Dorothea Lange’s imagery, the minting of the color sepia, Henry Fonda’s almost-too-perfect Tom Joad, and the long, long shots (some real) of desperate day laborers enduring agony to travel from desolate Oklahoma to an uncertain future in California. With its reminder that there’s nothing more American than migrant workers, Grapes has become necessary viewing during our current national discourse that routinely disparages “migrant workers.” On the other hand, Steinbeck’s poignant tale made into cinema is also the ultimate Depression story, a memento mori for the other side of the American century, perhaps the best way to deliberately remember the Forgotten Man.
Salt of the Earth (1954) directed by Herbert Biberman and On the Waterfront (1954) directed by Elia Kazan (tie)
A casual 1955 moviegoer might have been able to wander into screenings of both of these on the same day — though not easily, since the U.S. government actively suppressed the former. Government suppression is, it turns out, a key theme of both films, and one reason that it’s hard to give Kazan’s masterpiece a single unique place on this list. Although there are a plenitude of reasons to love Arthur Miller’s idea that became Budd Schulberg and Kazan’s On the Waterfront — from Karl Malden’s highly moral priest (back when that didn’t seem unremarkable) to Eva Marie Saint’s deeply sympathetic Edie to Marlon Brando’s brilliant acting as Terry Malloy in a journey from pigeons to “I coulda been a contender” — the film will always come with the asterisk of serving as Kazan’s extended apology for capitulating to the government and ruining his colleague’s careers. Salt of the Earth is in many ways the first Mexican-American film, and certainly the first to let Chicano concerns really stretch their legs on celluloid. The later scenes, as the women take over the meetings and emerge as the difficult, polyvalent conscience of two nations, have lost none of their power to astonish.
Black Girl (La Noire De…) (1966) directed by Ousmane Sembene
The original French title hints at a less blunt, more elliptical sort of framing, loosely “a black girl of…” Did writer-director Sembene mean that Diouana might have come from anywhere in the Third World, or simply that there’s more to her than meets the eye? In any event Diouana’s story is both utterly specific and richly symbolic. Diouana is from Senegal (as is Sembene), and many scenes take place in her indigent village, making it clear that her choice to leave had to have been agonizing. In Europe, Diouana works as a maid for a bourgeois, white French couple who fancy themselves liberals and badly need a comeuppance, though the film hardly spares its lead criticism (she often comes off as whiny). Some such films suggest that societies shouldn’t co-mingle, but Sembene’s film is clear that the problem is less cultural and more simply exploitation of labor. The brutal ending retains its shock value. And what of the mask that Diouana brought, hung on the wall, and tried to save, only to see it expropriated as a diadem of African awareness? The final shot seems to suggest that even Sembene isn’t certain of all the fake face’s multiple meanings — never mind the meanings of the face of Diouana.
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) directed by Barbara Kopple
This list could have easily been all documentaries; the fact that this is the only documentary on it should tell you something. Part of Kopple’s achievement is simply breadth; she interviews about 180 people in and around the coal mines of rural Kentucky, and makes the viewer care about the fates of just about all of them, particularly the hardscrabble women. This, alongside Grapes of Wrath, stands as probably cinema’s purest, most deeply empathetic document about the struggle for human dignity through earning an honest wage. The Academy may or may not have succumbed to star-spangled myopia when they awarded Best Picture to Rocky over Network and Taxi Driver, but people forget that they evinced a different and equally valid patriotism when, on the same night, they properly recognized the Best Documentary Feature (ever?). Both Rocky and Harlan County, U.S.A. suggested that there was a wide swath of struggling working-class-palooka America that Hollywood had barely noticed (despite the ostensible realism of the Hollywood Renaissance), but it was the rural and feminized Harlan County that served as indispensable precedent for what might have been the best films of 1978, 1979, and 1980, respectively: The Deer Hunter, Norma Rae, and 9 to 5. (In her autobiography “My Life So Far,” Jane Fonda explains that 9 to 5 began as her response to Harlan County, a desire to show the pains of working women; it was only after Fonda saw an early screening of an unimprovable Norma Rae that she refashioned 9 to 5 as a comedy, with smashing results.)
Matewan (1987) directed by John Sayles
A period piece about striking West Virginia miners in the 1920s, Matewan is in many ways a companion piece to Harlan County (and the Pennsylvania scenes of The Deer Hunter). Matewan could be considered an Appalachian prequel (before that word was coined) and yet it is also, like so many Sayles films, well ahead of its time, daring to explore intersectional issues of race, class, and gender long before shows like “Orange is the New Black” made it to the air. One mark of a great Sayles film, as with this one that he spent four years making (much as Kopple had), is that the plot unfolds so organically, it feels as though it couldn’t have happened any other way (this is crucial for stories about labor injustice). Another distinguishing characteristic of a great Sayles picture is an ensemble of excellent actors who never seem to be acting, just being; they rarely call attention to themselves, and that makes you wish you could spend even more time with all of them long after the movie is over.
Office Space (1999) directed by Mike Judge
It’s the unemployment-free 1990s, so what does anyone have to complain about? Douglas Copeland, in his 1991 novel “Generation X,” coined the term “McJobs” and explained them as “low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector”. One brilliant aspect of Office Space is that (unlike, say, Clerks ) it doesn’t limit itself to one service sector; it lingers on the McJobs of office cubicles and chain restaurants, venerating their vicissitudes of victimization. (Are Jennifer Aniston’s 15 pieces of flair going to be enough?) Another impressive aspect is how expertly and consistently humor is unearthed from the murky mud of lowered status, lowered income, and lowered expectations. Office Space is probably at least indirectly responsible for the British “The Office,” making it also partly responsible for the American “The Office,” a show that got many of us through the lion’s share of the aughts. If you are binging this list as suggested, you’re probably ready for a laugh by now; will Office Space provide enough? Well…“Yeah…that’d be great.”
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) OR It’s a Free World… (2007), both directed by Ken Loach
This list found it difficult to choose just one from the trilogy of British working-class lads who solve their problems through musical performance — Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), or Billy Elliot (2000). They may all owe something to the Irish film The Commitments (1991), but they all really owe the paterfamilias of British working-class cinema, Mr. Ken Loach, who in the end had to represent Britannia on this list. At least half-a-dozen of his films could be here, finally narrowed down to two. Choose: a war-oriented, male-oriented, socialism-debating period piece about the birth of a new Ireland that won Cannes’ Palme D’Or, or a race-oriented, female-oriented, immigration-debating contemporary piece about fairness in the new global economy. Ken Loach’s sharply humanistic films rarely have real bad guys, just working-class folks facing tough choices; this is one choice we couldn’t make.
Cesar Chavez (2014) directed by Diego Luna
Let’s face it, this has become the decade of identity politics, so before Cesar Chavez gets falsely maligned as the token Latino on your kids’ curriculum, it’s time to see his first and only full-length biopic. Turns out that Chavez and his business partner Dorothy Huerta would be national heroes no matter their race, because they organized thousands of disenfranchised laborers to demand, and secure, a living wage for them and their children, instigating reforms that spread across America and improved the lives of millions. It is true that this film was approved by the Chavez and Huerta families and thus leans toward the hagiographic, but it is also true that we may need rose-colored glasses to properly appreciate Chavez during a decade where organized labor is at its weakest point since the 19th century. Chavez’s widow Helen is still alive, reminding us that people like Chavez are still people we can aspire to be. After all, we’ve seen all the right movies.